PDT Sports Contributor
WHEELERSBURG, Ohio – For the vast majority of high school programs, replacing a 2,500-plus yard passer in Eddie Miller III and two 900-plus yard receivers in Dylan Miller and Tyler Claxon would be an impossible task in one offseason.
However, the return of several talented offensive and defensive lineman, in addition to the abilities that new Pirate quarterback Austin May has been showing during the offseason, the Wheelersburg faithful believe the Pirates will be reloading instead of rebuilding and Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward believes the Pirates will field another strong football team in 2014.
“We’re returning six guys on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, we bring back basically our whole offensive line, and we bring back (Micah) McAlister and (Jordan) Howard in the backfield,” Woodward said.
With a solid backfield that brings back its top two rushers from last year in McAlister and Howard, the only thing that may change from the key departures of Wheelersburg’s best passing attack in school history is the run-to-pass ratio.
“… Last year, we were a very balanced offensive unit, but we set a lot of passing records despite being 50 percent run and 50 percent pass,” Woodward said. “We are looking to try to be around the same ratio this year, but I say that we’ll be more of a 60-40 run-to-pass team in 2014.”
While the Pirates will look to utilize the ground game more this season, the promise that May has shown at the quarterback position has allowed Wheelersburg to set its pass ratio at a fairly high rate. In 2013, May completed 11 of 17 passing attempts for 104 yards and averaged 9.5 yards per pass completion while backing up Miller.
However, this year the job will be May’s as the 6-foot, 160-pound senior will move over from wide receiver (where he accumulated 534 receiving yards and five touchdown receptions last season) to the quarterback position on a full-time basis.
“Austin has done a great job of commanding the team thus far,” Woodward said. “He was always a quarterback growing up through (the feeder system). He’s a little more of a run-oriented quarterback. Eddie put up some good yardage running with the football last season and we look to do a lot of the same things with Austin this year as well.”
While May is a productive runner (as evidenced by his 19.8 yards per catch and 6.2 yards per carry in 2013), Woodward said that May is also good at executing the play action pass.
“Austin is probably more of a play action passer than Eddie was, but he can definitely get the ball out to our receivers without a problem,” Woodward said.
When May does hand the ball off, he’ll be relying on a bunch of new faces in the backfield as Wheelersburg is expected to rely on different players, including McAlister, a senior, and Howard, a junior. McAlister and Howard each averaged over five yards a carry last season as the pair combined to run for 531 yards on 94 carries.
Woodward mentioned that both players, along with Chasen Burk, Jacob Hutchinson, and Cole Cunningham will split time in the backfield for Wheelersburg this season as the Pirates will use a running back by committee approach in a manner similar to last season’s regional final run.
“Between (McAlister and Howard), I think you’re going to see a good tandem, but Hutchinson has really shown a lot of promise carrying the football as well. He’s just a tough running back that’s hard to bring down. Cole Cunningham is just feisty, and he’s just got a motor on him, which is why we’re trying to find a place for him on defense.”
As expected, wholesale changes will be made at wide receiver, as Miller and Claxon will be replaced by seniors Jacob Spradlin and Tyler Jenkins. Burk and Howard will also be expected to contribute at the slot receiver position when they are not playing at the H-back spot.
Wheelersburg’s offensive line will return many familiar faces and could very well be the strongest returning line in the SOC with the size and experience that is returning in the trenches for the Pirates. Sam Hall will be the starting center for the Pirates and will be joined by Gareth Bussa and Wyatt Mingus at the guard slots.
Chase Chambliss and Mitchell Warner are expected to bookend the line at the left and right tackle spots for Wheelersburg, with Chambliss coming back from a knee injury to win the starting left tackle job for the Pirates in his senior season. PJ Greeno and Brady Newsome could spell any one of the aforementioned linemen if one were to need a breather.
Hall and Cunningham will team up with Ian Salyers to lead Wheelersburg at the nose tackle and defensive tackle positions, while Chambliss, Greeno, and Colin Ahad provides Wheelersburg with depth along the interior defensive front.
Mingus and Andrew Conn will return to the weak side and strong side defensive end positions to complete the Pirates’ front line. Austin Ervin transfers over from Minford after not playing football for the Falcons last season but could be a factor in the defensive end rotation with his size and athleticism. Warner will move from the defensive line (where he played for three years for the Pirates) to one of the two starting linebacker positions, while Jacob Hutchinson will join Warner at the second linebacker spot in 2014.
The secondary will feature May and Howard at the corners, while Kyle Davis and Burk will start at the safety positions. While May will start at the corner position, Burk is expected to split time between corner and safety to give May a breather, which will open up the door for sophomore Jake Darnell to get some repetitions at safety as well.
As far as the assessment of the entire defensive unit is concerned, Woodward says that he’s been very impressed with the Pirates’ overall team speed.
“We’ve shown a lot of aggressiveness, a lot of flying around to the football,” Woodward said. “Our overall depth in terms of seniority is great, especially with 16 seniors out there on the field. A lot of them contributed to our overall success last season too and have seen a lot of playing time.”
As far as the SOC II race is concerned, Woodward says that the race for the conference title is wide open.
“I would say that the league is very balanced in where all of the teams in the SOC II could end up,” Woodward said. “I like the fact that there are no real expectations on the slate; it’s just going to come down to who plays the best on a weekly basis.”