Now entering his third year as head coach of the Philomath High football team, Alex Firth admits he takes a little bit of a different approach to how his players might line up from year to year. This fall, opponents will see a different offensive scheme when facing the Warriors.
“A lot of teams have a system and they try to fit the kids into the system,” Firth said early this week as PHS prepared for its Friday night season opener. “I’m the opposite. I like to look at the kids and try to fit the system around the kids because you don’t always have the same makeup year in and year out. We’re not going to line up in a two tight end formation and smash the ball if we don’t have two 6-6 tight ends — it’s just not viable to do that.”
The program has seemingly taken an important step forward heading into this fall just by the sheer increase in participation numbers. A lot of players are back from last season’s roster but there has also been a big influx of students to push the number up to 46.
“I think when school starts, we always have some stragglers that show up late … I’m thinking we’re going to get close to 50 this year, which is obviously a vast improvement over the numbers we had my first two seasons,” Firth said.
Firth said more bodies in the program can only bode well for the future.
“Having the depth this year is huge just in practice in terms of our ability to actually have a full-scale practice,” he said. “We actually had what I would say was probably our first full-tackle practice since I’ve been here last week. And it actually went really well. I think that the kids enjoyed it and I think having that depth is going to go a long way.”
A particular part of the team that sorely needed depth the past few seasons could be found in the trenches.
“Not having to lean on the same five linemen the entire game goes a long way,” Firth said. “Where we’re probably blessed the most this year is we have a lot of linemen, which is a rarity. We probably could field two full offensive lines and there’s probably another three kids behind them that I’m comfortable throwing out there.”
Philomath has three returners returning on the offensive line in junior Brady Russell (guard), sophomore Lake Mulberry (tackle) and senior Jake Demers (tackle). Elsewhere on the line, junior Zack Powers and senior Shane Muir will rotate at the other guard spot. Senior Kallen Albin takes over at center, where Mulberry played last season.
Firth has options in the backfield and it appears there will be a new starting quarterback.
“Caleb Russell’s probably going to start at quarterback this year but Kaden (Muir) is going to move to tailback,” Firth said. “There are some things that we can do … two-quarterback stuff that we can kind of play around a little bit with back there. And they each have their different strengths — Caleb is probably a better passer and Kaden is definitely a better runner.”
Russell, a junior, did see some time calling signals last season.
“He’s more mature and has a better grasp of the system,” Firth said.
The move will likely give Muir, a senior, the opportunity to have more impact plays on offense.
“Moving Kaden to tailback affords him the ability to carry the ball more frequently than he was at quarterback,” Firth said. “Honestly, it’s kind of a waste of his talent having him back there just handing the ball off when he’s dangerous with the ball in his hands. So, I think that featuring him more at tailback plays to his strengths and really adds a dynamic to our run game.”
Philomath will be running out of more two-back sets, Firth added.
“We have (sophomore) Rocco De La Rosa back there and we have (senior) Mason Stearns, we have (junior) Grant Niemann — we have a lot of running backs that we can put back there that fits the skills that we have,” Firth said. “So, we have a lot of depth at the skill positions.”
The coach said he can probably go two or three deep at receiver as well. The Warriors will show different looks offensively that could include three wideouts.
“It’ll look a little more spread-like, if you will, given that we have a lot of skill kids that we can put out there,” Firth said. “We need to take advantage of that.”
Returnees include junior Warwick Bushnell and sophomore CD Nuno and joining the team this year is junior Logan Matthews, a proven athlete in other sports. Senior Hayden Fuller will be in the mix after strong work in the offseason. Sophomore Josiah Peters is another player expected to contribute.
“There’s a whole list of receivers that we can put out there that I’m comfortable with starting,” Firth said. “They know what’s going on and they’re reliable kids.”
If Philomath decides to work in a formation that includes a tight end, junior Hudson Raab would probably fill that role, Firth said.
On defense, the linemen will likely be able to get a break, which hasn’t been the case in the recent past. An example Firth used was if Powers is playing guard, Shane Muir would likely be on the defensive line.
“We’re going to switch to an uneven front so our ends are going to be more athletic-type rush ends,” Firth said. “In the 3-4, they’re more of an extended tackle — I think these guys will be more of a rush end.”
Raab will be on one side and possibly Mulberry on the other with players like Shane Muir and Brady Russell inside “but we can spell the with Zack (Powers) and (sophomore) Tiernan (Bovbjerg) … and we’ve got (sophomore) Ben McGovern, we’ve got (junior) Ryder Zitlau — we’ve got a lot of kids that can put their hand down on the D line and help us.”
Added Firth, “They’re all capable of getting the job done so you don’t have to worry about hiding a kid or putting someone out there where you’re worried about a disparity in talent.”
Elsewhere, Kaden Muir and Stearns will be inside linebackers and it appears that De La Rosa and Niemann could be filling outside linebacker roles. In the backfield, Matthews and Nuno will line up at the corners with Bushnell at safety, backed up by Fuller.
“There’s a lot of combinations we can do,” Firth said.
On special teams, the Warriors return Kaden Muir at punter and Raab at kicker. Nuno will be the long snapper backed up by Stearns. Added Firth, “And there’s a whole host of athletic kids that we can put out on special teams and get work done.”
Firth’s assistant coaching staff saw significant changes. Former Oregon State linebacker Walker Vave has taken over the defensive coordinator position with Will Love moving into a volunteer role. Another former OSU player, Jovan Stevenson, is working with running backs and defensive backs. And yet another former Beaver, Rudroft Fifita, is helping with the defensive line.
In addition, a couple former Warriors standouts are on the staff. Trey Ecker is in the role of quarterbacks coach and Daz Bennett is contributing as well as a volunteer coach. Returning to the staff are Lance Faxon, Carlos Nuno and Aaron Schermerhorn, who is also serving as the junior varsity head coach.
The team will play a full junior varsity schedule this season, an added bonus from the higher participation rate. The Warriors played their first game Thursday at Clemens Field and lost 38-0 to Crook County.
The varsity schedule is very similar to last year with the season opener Friday at Crook County. Newport, an old rival going back decades, returns to the schedule — the Cubs petitioned down to 3A — and will be the opponent for the Sept. 8 home opener.
Special District 3 opponents include Cottage Grove, Junction City, Stayton, Cascade, Marist Catholic and Sweet Home.
“There are a lot of new coaches in the league so it’ll be interesting to see what they’re all running,” Firth said. “I always go to the schools and the enrollment and the roster size and Cascade is always going to be a team that you’re going to have to try to beat. I think that Marist, given the school and the history there, that they’ll have a lot of talent. Stayton was good last year, Junction City was really good last year. So it’s hard when you get into our conference because there’s a lot of good football teams.”
The Cascade game on Oct. 6 will be homecoming. There will also be a late-season nonconference game again this year against Klamath Union.