The Rolla football season was full of it's fair share of ups and downs.
The Bulldogs had stretches of great success, which included winning four straight games in the middle of the season. Nothing comes easy in the Ozark Conference and the Bulldogs took a few tough conference losses, before seeing their season coming to an end in the District semi-finals on last Friday. Overall, head coach Jon Franks is proud of what his team accomplished this season.
"After you get over the sting of losing and you reflect, I'm very happy with this year," said coach Franks. "It's not always about wins and losses, but development and these guys have come a long way. They had a great year, they had a great career in the program and they've helped establish the program. A fourth place finish in our conference, the best since '09, it was better than last year's team. For me, it's just continued progress."
The Rolla football program has come a long way since coach Franks took over three years ago. The biggest sign of that progress is the change in expectations both in the community that supports the Bulldogs and in the locker room.
"The thing that I'm probably most excited about is that we have established expectations physically, mentally, how this team should prepare, how it should look, how we should do things," said coach Franks. "They're frustrated when things don't go the way they should or the way they planned, but that comes from expectations, which is a good thing."
Coming into the season, the biggest question was at quarterback. Jack Hounsom was charged with replacing one of the most successful quarterbacks in school history in Josh Pritchett. Hounsom didn't put up the same level of production as his predecessor, but coach Franks thought he handled that pressure well. The junior quarterback threw for 1090 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions, while rushing for another 413 yards and eight scores on the season.
"Obviously the big elephant in the room was the quarterback position and I thought Jack did a nice job of handling that this year," said the Rolla head coach. "Jack did a nice job calling the O and running the show. I think coach Shockley does a great job with our offense and they were kind of under that pressure of last year's offense. At times, we struggled, but that was just the football team. When we were good, we were really good.
"This team had to find their own identity," continued coach Franks. "Every senior group that comes up has to kind of break out from the senior group that came before them and show that they can do things."
This season, the Bulldogs found their identity on the ground thanks to a breakout season from Trey Quick. The senior running back was electric all season long, rushing for 1,697 yards and 19 touchdowns.
"Right off the bat we knew that we were going to have to ease some pressure offensively and we thought Trey would be able to help with that. We also knew that the offensive line would have to come together," said the Bulldog head coach. "Before I got here, Trey was a running back and I didn't know that. My first year, Trey is a receiver. In the offseason, I was like 'Trey, how about running back?' And you could see a sigh of relief come over his face and he said 'that's what I've always been.' It was nice for him to be able to finish up there and Trey did a nice job this year."
Quick ran well all year thanks to some help from a strong group of offensive linemen. The big boys up front don't always get a ton of attention, but players like Kaberon Burgess, Noah Crouch, David Wiles, Darius Facen and Kelly Brown helped open up a lot of holes for Quick and kept the Rolla offense moving this season.
"There's nothing more important to a football team than their offensive linemen," said coach Franks. "Quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, they all get the attention, but the first thing that has to happen is your offensive line has to come together. I thought they did a nice job of that this year. There wasn't a lot of returning starting experience, but there was some returning guys that played...we knew there was some experience there and we knew we had to get them progressed. Coach Mac did a really good job of that this year."
One thing that every team has to deal with every season is injuries. Rolla had their share of struggles with injuries this season, but the most noteworthy was Blaize Klossner. The Bulldog swiss army knife missed multiple stretches of games this season as he dealt with an ankle injury and being without him was a tough challenge for Rolla on both sides of the ball. Despite missing almost half the season, Klossner was Rolla's leading receiver with 32 catches for 303 yards to go along with 115 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
"I think there's no doubt it was huge. Blaize is pretty much one of the main components of our program with heart and soul, a competitor. He's an offensive key. He missed four or five games and we missed him," said coach Franks. "Not only for his ability, but his leadership. When he was out, he was leading. We have some guys, they get hurt and they disappear from the team. Blaize is hurt and he becomes our number one supporter on the sidelines and that says a lot about his leadership and his care for the program."
Injuries are never good, but it gives other players a chance to step up. Offensively, it opened the door for players like RJ Alfred and Elijah Young to have expanded roles in the offense. Young led the team with five receiving touchdowns this season to go along with 246 receiving yards. Alfred added another 278 yards and three scores through the air. Defensively, an early injury to Justin Briggs opened the door for a breakout season from Corbin Cox, who ended up with 39 tackles, four tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. Coach Franks liked seeing how players responded to that 'next man up' mentality.
"Injuries are terrible and there's nothing worse than seeing a kid get injured severely in your sport or any sport. That's the number one thing you don't want to see," said coach Franks. "I think it was a good sign for us and the program that other guys were ready. It showed that other guys could step up and take care of work. Maybe not quite at the level that the starter was, but then there's the example of Corbin Cox. Corbin had a great year, honestly. He got a chance to possibly be an All-Conference type player. He put up some good numbers, gave some good pressure. Corbin did an outstanding job."
Young was a crucial player for Rolla on both sides of the ball. On top of being an offensive leader, he led the team with four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, as a safety. Young also added 69 tackles, two of which were for a loss. Players like Young helped set the tone for Rolla on both offense and defense.
"I thought Elijah had an outstanding season on both sides of the football," said coach Franks. "When Elijah was a sophomore, he was a starting offensive receiver, came down with an injury that kind of sidelined him with his ankle and he could never get out of it. Junior year, breaks a finger, so he has to play defense the whole time. We knew he had offensive ability and we're just happy for him. He put in a lot of effort in the weight room, took a lot of coaching and he's one of those that not only turned into a fine football player, but a fine young man."
The defensive side of the football had some strong leaders on it outside of guys like Young. The heart of that defense was a pair of exceptional linebackers in Josh Morris and Colton Franks. Franks led the team with 128 tackles on the season to go with a team-high seven tackles for a loss, while adding a pair of sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles and a blocked field goal. Morris, meanwhile, had 88 tackles on the season, while adding three sacks and a forced fumble. Coach Franks couldn't speak more highly of his two leaders in the middle of the field.
"You talk about Josh Morris and what a kid and what a great football player. A three year starter, career tackle leader. After this year, he'll have that in the record books," said coach Franks. "Josh has had a great career. He's really our quarterback of the defense. Josh is a great kid, really good with his teammates, tough. We ask him to do a lot of things, we asked him a couple of games to play defensive end. Not his most enjoyable games because those stat numbers go down a little bit, but how important to have a kid like Josh. Josh wasn't going to come off the field unless he was minus a limb.
"As the dad and as the coach, it's kind of hard to talk about your son, because I was tell our coaches, I let them make a lot of the decisions when it comes to Colton so I'm not being a parent," said the Rolla head coach about his son. "Colton is a very good football player. As a dad and a coach, I'm very proud to watch him play. He's fun to watch play, like all of our kids. He does a really nice job...it's a great opportunity to spend time with your kid and it's an experience that I'll never get to do again. It would be awesome for any parent to get to enjoy what I get to enjoy, but I still get one more year."
The secondary for the Rolla defense had it's share of great moments too. Players like Young, Ahmed Boubacar and Blayne Yarger were staples in that secondary. With injuries to key players like Klossner, the secondary was in flux at times, but their mainstays were consistent. Boubacar had two defense touchdowns to go along with a punt return touchdown for the Bulldogs this season. He intercepted three passes, while recovering a pair of fumbles to go along with 50 tackles. Yarger added a pick-six of his own, one of two interceptions, while adding 36 tackles and a forced fumble.
"Boubacar has been there for three years and he's another one that's really grown from a sophomore to a senior to be a pretty sought after football player at the next level. A very good football player," said the Rolla head coach. "Obviously when Blaize comes out, that lets some other people have an opportunity like Muluken Pritchett. He was ready to go and he just got more opportunity to play this year, he did a great job. Elijah, obviously, with a lot of playing time. We got Blayne Yarger back off of his Tommy John surgery, a real blessing to get back. We started him at safety and the last half of the season he played corner and he did an outstanding job in the secondary.
"When you talk about secondary, what a talented group," continued coach Franks. "Those guys did a great job this year. I know they had some issues as far as we had a few busts here and there, but I don't think it's as much them as it is us as a coaching staff."
While the season ended a little sooner than the Bulldogs would've hoped, one of the bright spots of Rolla's District loss to Borgia was seeing how they continued to fight in the second half, despite an early deficit. Coach Franks has always appreciated the fight his team has shown.
"It's exciting to know that they fight until the end," said coach Franks. "I've been blessed. Every year the Rolla kids fight, they compete. There's not a lot of quit in the Rolla kids. It goes to show that they care."