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Football will kick off its season Friday against Harker Heights

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Parker Maroney

Jalen Nutt evades tacklers during last week’s scrimmage against San Marcos. Nutt and Co. will put the team’s new offense on display on Friday against Harker Heights.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

Way back in early March, Larry Hill was preparing to finish up his 27th year as Smithson Valley’s head football coach. Spring practices were right around the corner, and with a large outgoing senior class, there was a lot of work to do.

Well, until there wasn’t.

The coronavirus pandemic shut everything down—from baseball to barbecues—but sometimes the little things cause the most panic. A cancelled meet-and-greet isn’t that big a deal… that is, unless it could’ve vaulted its patrons into better jobs or opportunities. Similarly, cancelled spring practices are only worrying if they appear to be a microcosm of what is still to come. Which, unfortunately, they did. 

“[When everything shut down], I felt a little lost and uncertain of what was going to happen next or if we’d get to play again,” said Gabe Hoskins, a senior running back. “So I devoted my time to becoming a better athlete and trying to best prepare myself for a potential season.”

The offseason was rife with trial and error on every level of government, political or not. The team’s original schedule listed this Friday’s game as the 5th of the year, a matchup with rival New Braunfels. For a while, it looked like this would just be another sad, locked-down Friday. Instead, after a slew of decisions from federal and state officials, local legislatures in San Antonio and El Paso, the UIL and Comal ISD, the team is, finally, going to play. 

“Yeah, [scheduling new games] was pretty difficult, although we secured [the Harker Heights game] pretty early,” Hill said. “Then, when the El Paso [Eastwood] game got cancelled, we were looking for a game there, too. And had a few leads, had a few lines in the water, but when the district, over our objections, voted to go ahead and play one less non-district game… well, we didn’t end up gettin’ to make it up.”

The path to this season has been a long one. But for the players, being back on the field again makes the hard times worth it.

“[Getting to practice again felt] amazing,” Hoskins said. “I’ve been with those guys for what seems my whole life, and being able to work and bond with them again was amazing. We all understood that it had been a while since we have gotten to work out, and that we were in a grind phase to make up for lost time due to [Covid-19], and everyone accepted it.”

That “grind phase” transcended the uniformed players, however; the rollercoaster offseason wasn’t enough to stop Hill from completely reshaping his roster. Of the eight returning starters, four switched positions. 

Ryan Benca, who started at right guard last season, will play left tackle this season, although injury issues have forced him to the right side for the opener. Garrett Brooks, who led the team in sacks last season, is moving from defensive end to wide receiver, where he’ll play a similar “weapon” role to the one Greg Eggleston excelled at last season. And, of course, he’ll keep punting. To make room for Brooks, Cooper Douglass was moved from wideout to cornerback, where he impressed in last week’s scrimmage against San Marcos. He’ll replace Jalen Nutt, the only returning secondary player, who is switching over to quarterback despite not lining up under center in a real game since his freshman year.

Nutt, who played quarterback in 7th, 8th and 9th grade and in every spring since, was initially blocked by current Division I quarterbacks Levi Williams and Luke Gombert, but he was too good to leave on the bench. Hill, who has completely overhauled his playbook for every quarterback that comes through his system, is excited to see what his newest signal-caller can do. 

“We’ve tweaked what we do to feature what he does well,” Hill said. “But I don’t think if you watched the scrimmage last week, and anyone who watches us, I don’t think it’s any secret we’re featuring the quarterback run a little bit more. We’ve always done that some, some years more than others… Jalen will give us that dimension, but obviously he’s gotta be able to throw the ball well too, and he’s made some real strides there.”

The new offense will feature lots of Run-Pass Options (RPOs), gadget plays and general trickery, a big leap from last year’s two back-centric scheme.

“The transition was a bit hard for me but I adjusted to it,” Nutt said. “But as [far as] learning, my coaches helped me a lot, especially during quarantine. We had Zoom meetings [and] went over the offense and what we would do [against] different types of defensive sets. I’ve watched a lot of college tape as well to see… different reads they would make [that are] similar to ours.”

Helping that transition along is an offense loaded with talent. Football games are won and lost in the trenches, and this team’s hog mollies are getting ready to eat. Returning starters Benca and Nathan Moczygemba will shore up the left side of the line. Gerald VanSickle and Colton Thomasson will split reps at right guard (although VanSickle will play left guard on Friday). Last year’s backup center, Braden Dornburg, brings experience to the right tackle spot. And the only newcomer to the varsity squad, center Britt Stolle, has drawn rave reviews from his coach.

“Linemen don’t get a lot of notoriety – ‘ok, who’s the center?’ – but [they make] line calls, [direct] traffic, kind of [run] the show a little bit,” Hill said. “And he’s got some talent as well, he’s gonna be a really fine football player… We certainly have leadership from Ryan Benca and Nathan Moczygemba on the offensive line, but just the nature of playing center in our offense, having to make all the calls and do that, Britt has really adapted to that well. 

“And that’s got a chance to be the strength of our team, the O-Line. We’ve got some strength, we’ve got some guys back, we’ve got some guys playing well and we feel like our passing game is gonna benefit from the running game that those guys will provide. At least that’s the hope.”

If the line does their job, they’ll ease the transition of the inexperienced-yet-talented skill group from backups to big-timers.

“[The skill position group is] still working its way and playing its way out, but we have four or five guys as you mentioned that we targeted the other day,” Hill said. “And that, coupled with a two-way guy like Garrett Brooks who we’re going to throw it to and of course line up in the backfield and hand it to, and then add in the quarterback run dimension… There’ll be a lot of players sharing the ball this year, which we hope will make us that much tougher to defend.”

Among those slated for big roles are Brooks, Zack McDonald and Kyler Clarke, three wideouts with zero career varsity catches. The aforementioned Brooks will obviously play a key role in the overall offensive scheme, but McDonald was one of just four sophomores to make last year’s varsity roster and Clarke could serve as a sort of Darren Sproles-type player who is a bit undersized but makes up for it with craftiness, getting touches on sweeps, short routes, screens and even kick returns. 

Other players vying for snaps on the outside include Maverick Freeland, who started last year but missed some time and wasn’t targeted much; Chase Senelick, a quarterback whose speed and athleticism earned him three scrimmage touchdowns (kind of) and a varsity roster spot; Will Strachan, a two-sport athlete who served as the team’s primary backup quarterback last year; and Garrison Eggleston, an athlete whose brother, Greg, starred last year in the same position.

Even as the receiving room shapes out, however, the backfield is already rounding into form. Hoskins spent last year as the team’s de facto third running back behind Eggleston and Jacob Forton, but he still managed to put up 388 yards and four touchdowns on just 53 carries, including an 11-carry, 103-yard, one-touchdown performance against Pflugerville Hendrickson. He is a bit undersized, but what he lacks in stature, he makes up for in speed. And boldness.

“I think our offense is going to be a powerhouse,” Hoskins said. “Jalen adding a run threat from the QB position… opens up a lot of things in our [running] and passing game. The gadget plays add some fun and flare to our offense’s ability to move the ball.”

On the other side of the field, the defensive line looks like its usual, dominant self. Returning defensive tackle Luke Seminaro will work side-by-side with Diego Hamilton, the rare defensive lineman with a single-digit number (three). On the edge, star rusher Trey Moore will be flanked by sophomore Gavin Woods, who has impressed so far in practices.

“I think [Woods] is gonna contribute right away,” Hill said. “He’s a talented kid, gonna be a good player for us for a long, long time, and we’re excited to have him and have him in that role.”

The linebacker room is a question mark, as talented middle linebacker Darlington Frasch is coming off of his second major leg injury in three years, and new starters Malachi Lane and Toby West have seen limited playing time. 

The secondary, too, is full of question marks, although the talent there is unmistakable. The cornerback room is led by two former receivers, Douglass and Noah Flores, who should help replace Cullen Betsey and his five interceptions (as well as the other seven interceptions that either graduated or switched positions).

“Well [Douglass] is just a real intuitive football player, really gets the game,” Hill said. “He really understands it, and we watched him come up and make a lot of plays, coming up through the ranks, freshman, JV, both as a receiver and a DB. And his wide receiver skills have always served him well when he plays defense, he tends to come down with a lot of interceptions.

“He played extremely well for us at receiver last year, but we felt like the need for our team was for him to go to defense. We can, and will, if necessary, bring him to offense and double him up some… both he and Noah Flores can do that. But I think both of those guys, with their offensive backgrounds, not only do they have the skills to play cornerback, but we’re looking for a lot of takeaways, [and] hopefully those guys will contribute a lot of interceptions.”

The lone returning defensive player with a varsity interception, Blake Bowman, will start at safety next to David De Hoyos, a dual-sport athlete committed to play baseball at Texas Tech. Bowman impressed in nickel and dime packages last year, and will finally get a chance to put his full skill set on display this season as a senior.

Speaking of seniors, Friday is senior parents night. It may look different this year, but it still serves as extra motivation for a team that never knew whether they’d even make it this far. A season opener, with fans—and parents—it’s exactly what these players have waited for since they got knocked out of the playoffs last year, 315 days ago.

“It’s our senior night, first game and we are expecting to protect our home field,” Nutt said. “Y’all will see a team that’s going to play hard all four quarters all season and give great competition.”

“[Expect] intense Smithson Valley High School football on every snap,” Stolle said.

Harker Heights is a fascinating matchup in a fascinating year. Led by Savonte Sanford-Paige, a 6’3 safety with multiple Division I offers, the team made the playoffs last year despite winning just four regular season games. Its multi-quarterback system is funky, but works, as Shylan West (867 passing yards, three touchdowns) and Terrance Carter (347 rushing yards, three touchdowns) both contribute in different ways. It’s an interesting opponent, but pretty much everyone involved is just glad to be there.

“Well, you know, we traded the scrimmage tape of course, so we know a little bit about ‘em, they know a little bit about us,” Hill said. “What’s different is, most years, the week of your first game is also the first week of school, so you’re dealing with that chaos, and trying to get in a routine. Well, now it’s the 5th week of school, and so some of that has kinda died… 

“[The game is] against an opponent we don’t know much about, we’re not very familiar with. But we’re playing, we’re excited…  Let’s go.”