OFF THE CUFF

Let’s see a show of hands; who’s glad high school football is back?

My hand was raised high, as I’m sure were a lot of yours.

Here in Houston, we’re entering year five of head coach Eric Sloan’s tenure, and of course there are challenges facing he and his Tigers squad.

The biggest of those would be the unexpected and abrupt departure star running back Daniel Hutcheson, who moved to Cabool after participating with Houston during the summer in 7-on-7 competition and other drills. Sloan called Hutcheson’s exit “a big shock” and said he had “no clue” it was coming until he didn’t show up for the first day of official practice.

But who wouldn’t be shocked when a 220-pound junior who’s the fastest guy in the league is suddenly not available? Sloan was designing his offense around the talented Hutcheson, but in his absence Houston is left with far smaller and younger ball carriers, whose ability to gain yardage is yet to be determined. But rather than focus on something negative that can’t be altered, Sloan considered the possibilities and elected to significantly expand the Tigers’ passing game, which should at very least be fun to witness.

Not that we’re going to see an “Air Raid” approach, where the quarterback throws 50-plus passes as is typically the case with Mike Leach’s Washington State University program. But don’t be surprised if the number of passing plays increases from only about two or three to 10 or 15 times that many.

Before we look at some of the Tigers’ strong points, here’s the bad news: Depth is not on that list. In fact, Houston will begin the season with nine guys starting on both offense and defense.

Being the realist he is, Sloan knows there’s potential for disaster in having so many two-way players. Basically, if one or two of the stalwarts are sidelined with an injury, there aren’t a bunch of tried-and-true upperclassmen ready to step in.

Quite to the contrary; Sloan said he has little to fall back on and the “Iron 9” best be mentally ready to be physically tested.

But the good news is, that Iron 9 is made up of a solid group of players who may well be up to the task.

One of those is senior Dakota Burchett. I’m really looking forward to how the third-year starter at quarterback reacts to his new role as a throwing machine, and how he fares now that he must more or less reinvent himself (in large part out of necessity).

More good news is that Burchett will be throwing to some very sizable targets in 6-4 senior Connor Wilson (a wiry, athletic wide receiver), 6-4 sophomore Korbyn Tune (a burley, quick 216-pound tight end) and a couple of other guys with some height and hops. Sloan said Burchett and Co. have spent hours upon hours working together during the summer, and that they appear to have formed an air-tight bond and know what to expect from each other.

Sloan also said the thrower and catchers will be allowed some leeway in certain situations, as run-pass option plays (RPOs) will be in the mix in which Burchett knows he has a receiver or two on a route.

All things considered, I like the offensive line’s chances of having a good year. Among the Tigers’ key blockers are senior guards Chance Mitchell and Dontae Pritchett, who Sloan said are a couple of the fastest guys on the team who would likely be used as ball carriers if the depth chart was more favorable.

And how cool is it that these guys pretty much volunteered to do the dirty work?

“They said they might as well play on the line,” Sloan said, “because if we don’t have any blocking we’re not going to have a running game anyway.”

Nonetheless, Sloan said fans can expect to see the fleet, 195-pound Mitchell line up in the backfield at times, and he’ll also return kicks for the Tigers. That ought to be interesting.

I also like Houston’s set up on defense, and if the injury bug doesn’t bite too hard, the Tigers might not give up many points and could well snatch lots of turnovers from both loose balls on the ground and interceptions.

Sloan said he’s fortunate to have a guy like senior middle linebacker Devin Wallander in the red and black, saying it’s like “having a coach on the field” and that he’s always barking out instructions and making sure bodies are where they should be.

And oh yeah, Chris Cichon is back for his junior year to wreak havoc on both the O and D lines. Look for the energetic 238-pounder to show up often in big situations for 48 minutes every week.

Anyway, after going 5-5 last year (following a 5-2 start), Houston begins the quest for its first winning season since 2008 with a home game this Friday against Sarcoxie. The Tigers figure to face a pretty stiff challenge in the matchup, because the Bears went 7-4 in 2018, won five of their last six games, and have 12 seniors on the roster.

But why not jump right into the fire? As is often said, if you want to be a good team, you have to beat good teams.

Go Tigers.

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