The Philomath High School football team plans to have a whole lot of fun on defense this season. Fans in attendance at last week’s jamboree got a little taste of the possibilities with the team’s 3-5-3 attack defense causing all kinds of problems for the opposition. In particular, the linebackers put on an aggressive performance that Warriors first-year coach Alex Firth described as “lights out.”
“It’s probably one of the better groups of linebackers we’ve had since coach (Will) Love and I have coached together for the past 20 years,” Firth said, the two coaches coming to PHS from 5A Crescent Valley. “They fly around, they have fun, they’re good tacklers. They’re almost like a wolfpack, they’re just out there hunting everything down.”
Philomath’s defense will be put to the test for the first time this season Friday night at Valley Catholic. The game in Beaverton is scheduled for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
Heading into his first season with the Warriors program, Firth believes he has a group of hard-working athletes that are receptive to a new system.
“Everything’s new to them but I think they’ve embraced it and worked really hard, so I’ve been pretty happy with what we’ve done,” Firth said. “We didn’t really know where we stood until we were in the jamboree on Thursday (Aug. 26) so it was actually nice to go out and hit somebody besides ourselves.”
Contact had been limited in practice because of the program’s low numbers. Heading into the season, the roster shows 34 players, 22 of them are freshmen or sophomores.
“I’d obviously like to see the number close to 40, especially linemen types — I think that’s probably the biggest need,” Firth said. “But other than that, I think the kids we have work hard, they listen, they’re coachable.”
One of the challenges, Firth admitted, was gauging how Philomath’s talent compares to other schools competing at the 3A level.
“We’ve been at the 5A level for so long that we’re trying to compare what we have against what we had at that 5A level,” Firth said. “Like our linebacking corps — they could play at the 5A level, no problem, and they’d be good. It’s just trying to figure out where we slot at some of the other positions.”
Firth really likes what he’s been seeing out of the linebackers. In the jamboree games, seniors Jake Williams and Isaac Lattin, juniors David Griffith and Ty May, and sophomores Mason Stearns and Kaden Muir all saw time at those spots.
“We have five linebackers, so that’s kind of the whole crux of that defense,” Firth said. “We have three down linemen … they’re really there to kind of just control the line of scrimmage and allow our linebackers to run free.”
In reality, despite the strong jamboree outing, Firth said Philomath actually ran a “vanilla” defense with only a handful of blitzes. Outside linebacker is a key position.
“The outside linebacker position is the hardest on our defense because we ask them to do two different things,” Firth said. “They’re a run stopper and a pass defender.”
Firth recalled a play involving Stearns that perfectly illustrated what an outside linebacker should be doing.
“He made one play — he took on and defeated a kick-out block and then shed it and made the tackle, which was textbook for what we’re asking,” Firth said. “So that was pretty impressive.”
On the three-man defensive line, Philomath will have players that are also seeing time on offense.
“There will be a lot of two-way players but we’ll try to balance it so it’s not the same kids every series and we’re just wearing everybody out,” he said.
As for the defensive backs, Firth expects a lot of man coverage against what appears to be run-oriented conference opponents.
During those first few weeks of training camp working toward the season opener, most teams have a more challenging time implementing their offense. That’s been the case with Philomath.
“Offensively, where we’re at is expected,” Firth said. “Offenses are always behind the defense early in the season because it’s such a timing issue.”
The Warriors have also been dinged up a bit, which has caused some issues. Firth said settling on a passing strategy commands the most attention heading into the season.
“I’m not a real ‘take a shot every down’ guy. I prefer to throw quicks, screens, things like that,” Firth said. “We’re probably going to work a little more on the movement passing — the play action and the sprint pass.”
Based on those comments, it appears that senior Caleb Jensen might have the edge at quarterback starting out this fall. One of Jensen’s biggest attributes is being able to throw on the run. Muir also saw time at QB in the jamboree games.
“I think we pass the ball fairly well but the fact that we missed guys running free in the secondary (in the jamboree), we need to really look at that and assess,” Firth said. “Part of it was, I think, we felt pressure that wasn’t there and left the pocket a little early. But there were also times when he had to run for his life so it was pretty hit and miss.”
Firth had positive comments on the play of both starting quarterback candidates.
“For Caleb, I think this is his fourth different offense,” Firth said. “In watching him, I think his strength is his movement outside of the pocket, so I think it’s something that I need to do offensively to try to play to that strength with him.”
Muir played well in the jamboree, Firth said.
“Kaden came in and he’s different, he’s not the same sort of movement passer that Caleb will be,” Firth said, “but he can manage the offense and he’s really good at working his progressions. It’s just repetition for him.”
The biggest strength on the offense appears to be at tailback. Griffith returns to give Philomath a bruising runner who can also break free around the ends.
“He’s amazing, he’s a naturally gifted zone runner,” Firth said. “He’s a guy that we really want to feed the ball to a lot in the run game.”
Senior Blake Niemann will be a backup to Griffith and Williams has also been seeing time at the position.
At receiver, Philomath has several players in the mix, including senior Alek Russell and a group of sophomores and freshmen, not to mention players coming out of the backfield. Tight ends Ty May and Jacob Peters will also figure into the passing game.
The offensive line did some good things in the jamboree games but Firth believes it will continue to be a work in progress. The line features a mix of young and old.
“For some of the seniors, this is their fourth offense and the terminology is new and what we’re asking them to do is new so there will be some line struggles in terms of understanding the scheme,” Firth said. “We’ve tried to simplify it as much as we can.”
Even before playing a single game, injuries have already impacted Philomath’s line.
“What I’m hoping for is as the season wears on and we get a couple of guys back that are out right now that we can really solidify the line,” Firth said. “The younger guys are just going to have to step up — that’s what it’s really going to come down to with the limited numbers we have on the line.”
After Friday’s season opener, Philomath will also play on the road in Week 2 with a trip up to Blanchet Catholic in Salem. The home opener at Clemens Field will be Sept. 17 against Woodburn.
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