Cats aim to mix ability, accountability

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Quarterback Nolan Ahrens passed for nearly 1,200 yards last season, guiding the Jasper football team to an undefeated regular-season mark. After their 2012 run ended with a last-second sectional loss to Evansvile Reitz, the Wildcats return a group with more offensive options while they try to plug key holes on defense. The Cats, ranked No. 4 in Class 4A in the preseason, will open against Evansville Memorial at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium.

By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor

Phase 1 has been complete ever since anyone can remember. Phase 2, well, that’s where the challenge is still simmering for the Jasper football team.

The schematics already entrenched, with an offense that plays follow-the-tailback and a bullish defense that’s permitted 12.2 ppg over the last four seasons. Those tenets are already established. The refinement is what the Wildcats are chasing.

Tony Ahrens, who’s six wins away from 100 victories entering his 11th season, realizes his team won’t cycle through an entire game mistake-free. That doesn’t mean Ahrens will relent in that demand. Last year, Jasper didn’t lose until the Class 4A sectional championship, falling by a point on a late field goal after possessing a 17-point lead against Evansville Reitz. In the launch of a 2013 season in which the Cats boast a more grown-up offense and a defense in the works, accountability has been the buzzword.

“If you’ve got a good team, you’ve got to prevent yourself from making mistakes. Even in that last game (against Reitz in the sectional) — we had that team stopped, we’ve got them backed up, and what do we do, we make a few mistakes,” Ahrens said. “Our kids are going to play hard, and they’re going to know their system. But they’ve got to understand that when we’re in games, you’ve got to limit mistakes and be responsible for your position and what its demands are.”

Nolan Ahrens should have an awfully good idea of that by now, after a debut season at quarterback in which the coach’s son threw for a tick under 100 yards per game and tossed 14 touchdown passes against just five interceptions. Now a junior, Nolan operates behind an offensive line that’s mostly new but comprises “some pretty solid kids up front that we feel good about,” Tony Ahrens said. Surrounding the senior core of center Ryan Hopf, left guard Neil Rose and right guard Craig Sander are two juniors, left tackle Collin Bowlin and right tackle Dylan Persohn.

Without graduated 1,400-yard rusher Cole Sermersheim in the backfield, junior Ben Moore and senior Nick Hale are now the featured running backs, while the sturdy Ian Songer, a 5-foot-8, 188-pound junior, is slotted at fullback.  

Don’t expect an abandonment of the run game and clock control, but Tony Ahrens indicated the Cats could have a wild card in the offense with Nolan’s increased accuracy. Philip Huebschman will be at one tight end spot opposite junior Austin Alles, who squeezed 15 receptions last season — seven of which went for touchdowns. Senior Zach Wood should also start at receiver, and Moore will also likely be among the batch of targets when the Cats operate in spread sets.

What settled Tony Ahrens after seeing last Friday’s scrimmage against Evansville North was the harmony between quarterback and receivers. It was simple football: Nolan put passes on a dime, and receivers handled them with confidence.

“I think our offense will be a little more mature. I don’t know that we’ll have as many offensive line changes as we had last year,” Tony Ahrens said.

“I think we’re going to be more mature and we’re going to be able to change a lot more plays at the line of scrimmage than we did last year, just because of growth. We have more receivers that are aggressively catching the ball. In the past, you might have one guy, but this year it appears that we have two or three guys. ... We’re going to line up and run the football and be physical, but if we can get to the line of scrimmage and change a play because we put our team in a formation and it puts (opponents) in a position where they can’t defend both, that’s going to help us a whole lot. You do that one or two times a game, that could be the difference between winning and losing.”

Initially, Alles should be the only guy on the roster who’s a regular two-way starter. He and senior Spencer Otto will be the defensive ends along a line that also includes senior tackle Cory Buchta and senior Moises Valenciano, who’s starting for a third season at nose guard. In the backfield, senior cornerback Brayden Betz and senior free safety Courtland Betz each plucked two interceptions last season, and strong safety Scott Stallwood adds to the seasoned senior bunch. Sophomore cornerback Grant Theil will join the unit, and Moore and senior Cole Lehmkuhler will also shuffle in the backfield.

Sandwiched between the line and the backfield are the question marks, since the Cats graduated a reliable pair of seniors in Cory Hoffman and Devon Traylor.

“We have some younger guys coming in doing a great job, learning what they have to do and doing it right,” Stallwood said. “We have some young guys, some (linebackers), that’ll come in and do a good job for us.”

The emergent faces for the linebacker holes are all sophomores: Luke Sermersheim, Tate Blessinger and Cal Krueger. Senior Ryan Smith and junior Mitch Lindauer also contend for snaps at the position.

“We have some kids that we think are going to be OK there, but we also have some young kids who are fairly athletic who can provide us (the possibility) to be a little stronger in that situation,” Tony Ahrens said.

The middle of the defense is still malleable in the season’s early stages, and that goes for some other spots on the field, too.

Stallwood hinted at some unpredictability and potential surprises, mentioning that Otto could receive some totes at fullback. The senior has been a stalwart on defense, but “he’s never touched a ball (on offense) in his life, and I know he’s pretty excited to get in there.”

Everything will begin to take shape starting Friday in the Cats’ 7:30 p.m. season opener against Evansville Memorial at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium. The season’s timeline includes a Sept. 21 tussle with Vincennes Lincoln at Lucas Oil Stadium, with the endpoint being a sectional in which just Jasper, Reitz and Evansville Central are the only three teams that managed winning records a year ago. Reitz, ranked one spot behind the fourth-rated Cats in the preseason rankings, could again loom as the team in the way as the Panthers have halted an undefeated Jasper season in three of the last four seasons.

“Especially as seniors and juniors, we definitely still have that in the back of our heads,” Stallwood said. “We want to keep that back there, but learn about it, not (dwell) on it. You just want to learn on it and think what you did wrong and come back and do the right thing next time. That’s a life lesson, really, do something wrong and come back and do it right the next time.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.




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