By Dave Ruthenberg, Sports Editor
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Beginning his second year at the helm, and with two weeks of spring football practice concluded, Enid head coach Steve Chard believes both he and the team have developed a level of comfort and trust with each other that bodes well for the season ahead.
“We were hoping to see a little more confidence and familiarity with our schemes,” Chard said Friday after the final day of spring practice. “We wanted to see better practice habits. I believe we saw all of that.
“Now that we have been with each other over a year, there’s no guessing games with what they are going to get from me. They know what to expect from the coaching staff. Last year everything was new. The system was new, my style was different.”
Chard said returning players put in a lot of work in the off-season, and it showed during the past two weeks.
“They have really embraced what we are doing,” Chard said. “We have gotten so much stronger over the winter and early spring. Coach (Nathan) Vogel really kept at it during the off-season.”
The confidence and familiarity aren’t the only things on the uptick, so are the numbers with 79 players coming out during the two-week spring session, causing equipment manager Marv Hannah some concerns about having enough uniforms to go around. But Chard acknowledged that’s a good problem to have.
“Of course, we don’t know how many will actually board the bus for the first game Sept. 6 at Choctaw,” Chard said. “But it’s definitely a good sign and it’s great because we have been able to split practice and get some of the young guys reps.”
There will be plenty of competition to replace some of the departing seniors who played a large role last season.
Junior Freddy Lawrence and senior Christian Voitik are battling at quarterback to replace Chance Pryor who passed for 1,480 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2012.
“They’re both doing a great job,” Chard said. “We’re certainly not ready to name a starter today. Christian also is trying out at linebacker, so there’s a lot on his plate.”
Chard said Lawrence reminds him a little bit of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham.
“He’s not there yet, but he is a true dual threat,” Chard said. “He’s six-foot-two and 190 pounds with a rocket arm. He’s a strider. He made some throws the last couple of days that really excite us. He’s a tough kid too.”
Lawrence comes into the season knowing the playbook, having played in every junior varsity game last season. “He’s very bright, as is Christian Voitik,” Chard said. The experience means more time working on things on the field.
“James Smith (offensive coordinator) has really been piling on him (Lawrence),” Chard said. “We can install more and work on technique rather than explain the naming system for plays and about the numbering system.”
The biggest loss on offense this season is the departure of record-setting tailback Seth Handley, who is taking his game to East Central University after rushing for 1,240 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
“We’re excited about that position,” Chard said, “even though it means replacing an all-stater and one of the best Enid guys ever.”
Senior Rashaan Finley is the likely starter, but junior Raheem Mitchell will be strongly in the mix as well. “They will be our thunder (Finley) and lightning (Mitchell) combination,” Chard said. “Finley (second on team with 301 yard rushing last season) is 205 pounds and Raheem is a scatback at 5-5 and 170 pounds, but he is strong, having placed at state in powerlifting in the offseason.”
Chard said both are hard to handle for defenders with several Plainsmen defensive backs having the bruises to verify that.
Seniors Aaron Beagle (28 receptions, 356 yards in 2012) and Alex Lofton (14 receptions, 276 yards) return as the team’s leading receivers.
“I feel good about our dual threat at wide receiver,” Chard said. “If we run a dig route with Aaron and post with Alex, the defender better stay on top of Alex or he will run by you. He’s one of the fastest kids in Oklahoma (second in the 400 meters at the Class 6A state track meet).”
Chard said seniors Tony Salcido and Sam Clemens are in competition for the two-slot at wide receiver with Jesse Cartwright and Elliot Holden in the mix. He also expects Finley and Mitchell to be used in the slot.
An area that may look a little different this year is on defense, where Chard is going with a more traditional 3-4 look than the 4-2-5 he used last season as he hopes the change will result in more pressure on the quarterback.
“You can come at them from every direction and use a lot more blitzes” Chard said. “We have been working really hard on that this spring.
“We improved defensively last season, but not as much as we wanted to,” Chard said. The Plainsmen allowed 33.1 points per game last season, down from a record-setting 46 points per game the season before Chard’s arrival.
Defensive back Marshawn Mills, the team’s leading returning tackler (99 tackles) and leader in interceptions last year (4), will be counted on again this season to lead the defense and looked good in the spring.
“He’s kind of like the QB back there,” Chard said. “He’s making the calls. Last year, he was a little unsure, but now he’s making the calls on his own and he’s getting them all.”
The Plainsmen are returning some good size across the lines this season as well. Estevan Arana (6-foot-5) and Stephen Hocker (6-4) will have an impact at offensive tackle and guard with Arana also lining up at defensive tackle or end. Junior Joel Sanchez is back after missing an entire year with a torn ACL and is pushing to start at center.
But Chard acknowledges there is a big hole to fill on the defensive line with the loss of Logan Miller, who is headed to Northwestern Oklahoma State. “We are going to miss him,” Chard said. “He was a great defensive tackle at 300 pounds, but some guys are having a great spring.”
Newcomers like Jacob Wiens and Mason Dillard have been impressive in spring with Wiens making a move to start at nose guard.
The team will get a good look at where it stands when the Plainsmen head to the Yukon camp on Tuesday and Wednesday. Edmond North also will be there.
“We’re excited to go down and test it out at Yukon,” Chard said. The teams will work out offensive and defensive sets and get in some 7-on-7 work.
Chard said the team is anxious to “get at it” and put last season’s 3-7 mark behind them.
“It’s a matter of eliminating the little mistakes in the most crucial time,” he said. He also believes the budding trust between the players and coaches is one of the best indicators for improvement.
“The kids do trust us — that’s a huge part of it — you have to earn their trust and I think we have done that,” Chard said. “The kids know that I’m in their corner all of the time. I ask a lot of them and they give a lot back.”
He also wants to ensure the players enjoy being part of the team.
“It’s a good rapport we have in here,” he said. “It’s not drudgery to come in. I want them to look forward to it and enjoy it. It’s high school football, it should be fun. We walk a good line between knuckling down and having fun.
“Good things are happening.”