By Dave Ruthenberg, Sports Editor
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
With tonight’s 7 p.m. season-opener at Choctaw, the Enid Plainsmen football team is hoping to show it is moving forward under second-year head coach Steve Chard.
“We were able to turn the page,” Chard said regarding the progression he has seen from the team entering the preseason and through camp as EHS seeks to improve on its 3-7 mark from a year ago.
“Last year the kids weren’t fully comfortable and we weren’t able to fully implement everything until almost Week 10,” Chard said. “We’re better (now) and everything is more familiar with us.”
Whether that translates into Enid’s first playoff appearance since 2009, remains to be seen.
But one thing is certain: The team is ready to get the season started.
“The kids are excited to play, we are finally in a game week,” Chard said. “What I like about our kids is you can see a change in their pace of practice and the urgency of practice has gone up because it’s game week. We’ve had a really physical week, and that’s what you need.”
The Plainsmen will be breaking in some new players who will be getting their first taste of starting a varsity game, including junior quarterback Freddy Lawrence.
Lawrence has shown surprising poise for a player who has yet to start on a Friday night, standing tall during scrimmages against Norman and Yukon.
“He’s gone against some pretty good competition in those scrimmages,” Chard said. The coach also likes the junior’s poise, not to mention his size (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) and arm strength. “He’s got the goods.”
The team’s biggest weapon from last season, record-setting All-State tailback Seth Handley, has taken his game to East Central University, but the team believes it has three potential performers in the backfield that are solid weapons.
Junior Raheem Mitchell emerged out of camp as the strongest of the trio. and has earned the starting nod and is expected to get the majority of the carries. Also getting carries will be senior Raeshaan Finley and sophomore Devin Pratt, who may have been the biggest surprise.
The receiving corps has depth and experience. Senior Aaron Beagle is the team’s leading returning receiver with 356 yards last season. He is joined by returning starter Alex Lofton, a senior with blazing speed who averaged a team-best 19.7 yards per catch receiving a year ago.
But several others are expected to see significant time at wide-out, including Tony Salcido, Sam Clemens, Jesse Cartwright, Logan Squire and Elliott Holden.
The defensive side is in good hands in the secondary, led by free senior safety Marshawn Mills who had 99 tackles and four picks last season.
“He will strike you and has good ball sense,” Chard said. “He’s hard to handle back there.”
The secondary also returns Beagle, who had three interceptions last year. But an area of concern tonight against Choctaw could be in the linebacker position, where the Plainsmen lost a couple of starters, but do return senior Isiah Singleton, who had 82 tackles last season.
The Yellowjackets run a hurry-up, no-huddle offense and are led by a quarterback, junior Jonah Llanusa, who has dual-threat capabilities, a player Chard feels is a bit underrated.
“If he were playing ball at Carl Albert or Midwest City, you would hear a lot about him,” he said. The junior is mobile enough and strong enough to throw across his body accurately. “When things break down, it’s tough to corral this kid,” Chard said.
“You’ve got to be ready and get up,” Chard said regarding defending the no-huddle. “We prepared well for it this week. You have to get in the fast flow of the game and not get overly extended. You have to stay with them, but don’t get confused with what we’re doing. We have been putting in situations on the fly of changing coverages and changing blitzes to prepare ourselves for what Choctaw is going to do.”
A key matchup to watch will be how Enid’s linebackers, in their new 3-4 scheme, react to Llanusa when he rolls out.
The Plainsmen will also have to account for Choctaw linebacker, senior Derrick Briggs, while on offense, a player Chard said is “one of the best in the metro.”
The Yellowjackets finished 1-9 last season and were outscored by an average score of 48-19. They welcome a new coach, Todd Dilbeck, who has plenty of experience and coached one year as an assistant at Rice University. He brought along former Mustang coach Ty Prestidge as his offensive coordinator.
The Plainsmen easily defeated Choctaw in last year’s season-opener, 41-12, but Chard said to throw that out when looking at this year’s team, noting at a recent 7-team scrimmage they were “the most improved team by far” out there, including “romping up and down the field” against 5A power McAlester.
If Enid has experienced a dry spell since its last playoff appearance, Choctaw has been in a veritable drought, having not reached the postseason since 1984, and has averaged two wins per season over the past five years.
But the Yellowjackets return a lot of experience with several players who have been playing varsity since hey were sophomores.
“We feel they are going to be better for two reasons,” Chard said. “Because of their coaches and their players have been playing 6A, probably even before they were ready.”
The Plainsmen also expect improvement and have a playoff run as one of their goals.
“We feel like we have a good chance (at making the playoffs),” Chard said. “Is this a playoff team? I don’t know yet. That’s a goal ... you have to go play and measure yourself.
“These (opening three weeks before district play) are designed to get your team in the right position to compete for a playoff spot. We are playing to get in the playoffs and get in the best position beginning in Week 4 to make that playoff run. Based on the work the staff has done and the players have done, we should win them all.”
Infirmary report: The Plainsmen have several players dealing with bumps and bruises, but all starters are expected to be available and suited up. Beagle, who had his leg rolled up in the Yukon scrimmage and was on crutches afterward, suffered a deep leg contusion, but is expected to start.
Numbers game: The Plainsmen’s numbers are up significantly this year. Last year Enid opened with 57 varsity players. Chard reports EHS will suit up 80 players for Choctaw, with 92 players making the trip.
Enid at Choctaw
Kickoff: 7 p.m.
Series: Enid leads 5-2
Last: Enid won 41-12, 2012
Radio: KCRC (1390 AM) and KGWA (960 AM)