If the Houston High School football team is to post a winning record in the 2019 season, it will be due to the efforts of a host of players who will be relied upon to produce on both sides of the ball.
Under the guidance of fifth-year head coach Eric Sloan, the Tigers will likely begin the campaign with nine guys starting on both offense and defense.
“We’ve got a lot of two-way guys,” Sloan said. “We have to; after our starters we fall off in a hurry and get really young and really inexperienced.”
Sloan said fans can expect to see some different things when the Tigers have the ball.
“We’re going to play faster and we’ve put a lot of eggs in the throwing game basket,” he said. “Several of the guys have put in a lot of time this summer working on it, and you can tell we can throw it and we can catch it.”
Senior Dakota Burchett will do most of the throwing, as he’ll start at quarterback for the third consecutive year.
“He has worked harder than any quarterback I’ve been around for a long time,” Sloan said. “Every night this summer, he was up at the field with the lights on throwing balls.”
Burchett will have several large targets to pass to, including 6-4 senior wide receiver Connor Wilson and 6-4 sophomore tight end Korbyn Tune.
“I think Connor is going to have a breakout year in all three sports,” Sloan said. “And Korbyn is a great big kid who’s only a sophomore but is someone we’re expecting great things from.”
To hopefully boost the running game, senior lineman Chance Mitchell will at times line up in the backfield and run the ball.
“He’s the fastest guy on our team playing offensive guard,” Sloan said. “He put on about 35 pounds in the offseason and pound for pound he’s also our strongest kid.”
Mitchell will also return kicks in 2019.
“I’m sure having a guy back there with No. 50 on his back will make people pay attention,” Sloan said.
One of the main reasons for the change of offensive scheme is the departure of running back Daniel Hutcheson, who moved to Cabool.
“We didn’t know he was moving until he didn’t show up for the first day of practice,” Sloan said. “A lot of things we thought we were going to do were based on having a 220-pound kid who was also the fastest guy in the conference. But we won’t have a big bruising running back this year, so hopefully our passing game will work well and that will complement our running game.”
HHS defensive coordinator Jake Brookshire will be utilizing several players new to his group this year.
“Right now there are a few growing pains,” Sloan said. “We’ve had to replace several key guys from last year, but coach Brookshire is very aggressive and we’re going to blitz a lot and have a lot of kids moving. I feel pretty good about it.”
The Tiger D will be led by senior middle linebacker Devin Wallander, the team’s second-leading tackler in 2018.
“He’s kind of like of having a coach on the field,” Sloan said. “He can put anybody where they need to be.”
Dontae Pritchett is another senior linebacker who Sloan said should step up big.
“We expect a lot out of him,” Sloan said. “He’s crazy fast and physical.”
One of the pleasant surprises Sloan has noticed during practice is the play of sophomore running back Bailey Hurst. With the absence of Hutcheson, the 5-9, 168-pound sophomore will be thrown into the fire and get plenty of carries.
“He’s got a little bit of shift in him that I didn’t know was there,” Sloan said.
Senior slot receiver Tristan Leier has also been a nice surprise.
“When we get the ball in his hands, he can dance and make people miss,” Sloan said. “Those two guys have really stood out to me.”
BUILDING A PROGRAM
Sloan’s tenure at the helm of Tiger football is long compared to many of his predecessors. He believes that’s a benefit to the team, and to the community’s football program in general.
“I think once you have a system in place and coaches are familiar with the kids and the parents and the kids and parents are familiar with the coaches, that’s how you build a program. Programs that are kind of like stepping stones are usually not very good year in and year out.
“My coaching staff hasn’t had much turnover the last few years so the kids are getting to know everybody there. I think that’s huge as we move forward.”
After seven games last year, the Tigers’ record stood at 5-2. But three straight losses – including a season-ending 20-0 district playoff defeat at the hands of Strafford – prevented Houston from getting over the .500 hump. The last time the Tigers finished with a winning record was in 2008, when the team went 6-5.
“We can have a winning season if we protect the ball, stay healthy and quit worrying about things we can’t control,” Sloan said. “And I keep telling the guys we have to be mentally tough.”
The Tigers participated in a three-team jamboree last Friday at Willow Springs that included Cabool.
“I thought it went OK,” Sloan said. “Jamborees are pretty vanilla, and we scripted a couple formations and about four plays and stuck to them. We tried to throw it quite a bit.
“And the defense played pretty well and didn't give up a score.”
Houston opens the 2019 season Friday with a home game against Sarcoxie. Kick-off is set for 7 p.m.
“I would sure love to provide a winner for this town,” Sloan said. “If we just play a week at a time, we’ll be OK.”