If you want to talk about players up and down the roster, second-year Philomath High football coach Alex Firth can provide plenty of insight on each of the team’s units — a strong group at linebacker, plenty of options at receiver, a bruising runner returning in the backfield and the wish for more bodies on the offensive line.
But when it comes to the schedule, Firth and his six assistant coaches will be venturing into new territory with the Warriors moving back up into Class 4A. When the smoke cleared from the latest Oregon School Activities Association realignment, Philomath found itself not only at a higher classification but in a fairly new collection of schools that make up 4A Special District 3.
“Obviously, it’s a step up in competition,” Firth said Tuesday before hitting Clemens Field for practice. “I don’t know without having played any of these teams, what that step up really looks like. Based upon the success we had last year and then how we played in the jamboree, I think we can compete at this level.”
The Warriors went 6-4 in 2021 (two of those wins were forfeits) and reached the state playoffs for the first time since 2015. Joining PHS in the SD3 league are Cascade, Cottage Grove, Junction City, Marist Catholic, Stayton and Sweet Home. Nonleague opponents on Philomath’s schedule include Friday’s season opener against Crook County, a trip in Week 2 up to Milwaukie to play Putnam and a home game against Klamath Union during homecoming week.
Firth said an important part of this team’s equation will be how the players mature.
“We’re a pretty young team — we have five seniors,” he said. “So it’s going to be kind of a work in progress as the season goes on with getting some of the younger kids up to speed.”
Overall, the program as of this week had 36 students participating.
“We have a good group of juniors, good group of seniors, but you know, we have sophomores and freshmen that some of them are going to play on varsity just by virtue of the numbers that we do have,” Firth said. “We talked about it in practice … it’s going to be an every man up sort of deal this year in terms of 36 kids and you get injuries and things happen throughout a season. Freshmen are going to have to step in and play a role.”
With those numbers, Philomath will again rely on players that are able to play on both offense and defense.
“It’s on us to make sure that we don’t run the guys that are going to play both ways into the ground,” Firth said. “We have to be able to intelligently substitute for them.”
A conversation about Philomath’s offense starts in the backfield with senior David Griffith, a tough-nosed running back who can punish would-be tacklers. Griffith returns as the team’s featured back, but senior Ty Olson will also get carries this season, the coach said.
“There’s some two-back stuff that we’ve put in that features their skillset that kinda takes the pressure off that single-back focus,” Firth said. “We’ve been trying to expand the run game a little bit to take pressure off David because teams are just going to load the box to stop him.”
Even though teams prepare to stop Griffith, the Philomath back who made all-conference first team at the position last season can still break through for yards.
“It’s the reality of what we’re going to see all year,” said Firth, referring to opponents loading the box. “But he’s that good of a tailback that you have to do that or else he’s going to beat you.”
Firth reports no major changes with his offensive formations, except for what could be called a philosophical adjustment at the line of scrimmage.
“We’re doing a little bit different in terms of our blocking to try to help our running game a little bit and take the pressure off David in the zone,” Firth said. “So maybe a little more of a man scheme than a zone scheme this year. But otherwise, the terminology’s the same, the passes are the same, protections are the same. From that standpoint, it’s pretty consistent.”
With players in the system growing up in the wing-T, so to speak, Firth expects the blocking changes to not be that daunting to the guys up front.
Junior Kaden Muir earned the job of starting quarterback but sophomore Caleb Russell will also see time behind center.
“Kaden starts at quarterback, yes, but he also starts at inside linebacker and that’s heavy duty physically on a kid,” Firth said. “So I’ve told them that they’re both playing quarterback — Kaden to start and Caleb coming in when Kaden for whatever reason needs to come out of the game.”
Depending on situations with any injuries that occur, Muir could even shift to tailback with Russell at quarterback.
“Keeping the ability to have two quarterbacks that can go in there and play is going to be really important for us,” Firth said. “It’s kind of a nice luxury to have two kids that you can trust at quarterback.”
Philomath’s receiving corps gives the playbook interesting options with senior tight end Ty May leading the way.
“Obviously, Ty, he’s a big 6-6 target and we want to feature him in the passing game,” Firth said about May, who made first-team all-conference last year. “I mean, at our level, he’s almost unguardable just by virtue of his height and athleticism.”
Sophomore Warwick Bushnell got in some good field time as a freshman.
“The words are the same, the routes are the same, so he’s more comfortable in the system,” Firth said.
Carlos “CD” Nuno, who is just a freshman, will also see some balls thrown his way. Junior Preston Kramer is another receiver in the mix.
“CD is a freshman but he’s physically mature and he’ll contribute,” Firth said. “Preston will contribute — he’s probably going to play a little bit of H-back for us and wide receiver. And (junior) Mason Stearns may play receiver — there could be a cast of thousands at the wide receiver position. That’s probably the one position where we have a lot of depth and athleticism.”
The offensive line will be young with the only senior that’s penciled in as a starter being Giovanni Abdelsayed, who made second-team all-league last season. Chad Russell, who at 6-foot-7 is the tallest player on the team, could see time on the O-line but the coach believes he’ll focus mainly on defense.
Otherwise, underclassmen will be holding down those spots.
“We’re going to be young on the inside … we’ll have a center who’s a freshman and the guards will both be sophomores and a junior at tackle,” Firth said. “So we’re young on the offensive line but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get the job done.”
Teams that have to fight the numbers battle — the Warriors could use at least 10 more athletes on the roster — often find a lack of depth on the line.
“That’s always going to be our Achilles’ heel here — just the number of linemen,” Firth said. “It’s just working around those numbers and doing the best we can to balance up that line.”
Philomath returns with a 3-5 defense that will again showcase the linebackers this season — a particular unit that the coach calls one of the team’s strengths.
Griffith and Muir hold down the inside linebacker spots — both were all-league honorable mention at the position last season — and are often among those first seen around the ball. Stearns and May are projected to start at the outside linebacker positions.
In the defensive backfield, Firth said he sees a good mix of experience and talent that will be important with the team likely going up against opponents that will be passing more than what was seen in 3A. Bushnell, Nuno and junior Kallen Albin are looking like they will contribute at cornerback, although Nuno is also a half safety candidate in rotation, possibly with junior Hayden Fuller. Kramer is a projected starter at free safety.
“I think in terms of the shell, we’re a little young but we’re a lot more experienced than we’ve been,” Firth said. “As we go into 4A and there’s obviously more passing teams, I think that will help us … the shell’s a lot more experienced than last year.”
On the defensive line, a lot of the same names as the offensive side will be on the field. Abdelsayed, sophomore Hudson Raab and Chad Russell look to be the three starters up front. Depending on the set, May will put his hand down once in a while and others expected to be among the first on the field include junior Jacob Demers and freshman Lake Mulberry.
“I think we’re pretty strong, certainly, with the three guys and we can get some fresh bodies in there quite a bit,” Firth said.
On special teams, the Warriors are looking at Muir to punt, Chad Russell to kick off and Stearns to kick PATs. Nuno will likely be the snapper with Muir as the holder.
Firth’s staff of assistants includes Carlos Nuno, DJ Jones, Will Love, Aaron Schermerhorn, Walker Vave and Lance Faxon — the latter two new to the staff.
The season kicks off at 7 p.m. Friday at Clemens Field with Crook County in town. The Cowboys are coming off a 2-7 season with four of those losses by single digits and the two wins by 25 and 43 points. This will be the first-ever football game between the two schools.