Archive for Thursday, August 24, 2006

Holes to fill

August 24, 2006

The Eudora High School football team gave a test drive of what life is like without proven, experienced seniors players filling out the offensive skill positions.

The car crashed.

After injuries claimed the last several games of the 2005 season for three players, the Eudora High School football team ran into trouble.

With star running back Luke Abel not playing in the last two games of the season and fullback James Mills being slowed from an ankle injury, the Cardinals fell to Baldwin 35-20 in the final game of district play, then lost to Louisburg, 44-30, in the first round of the state playoffs. The Cardinals' dreams of making a run through the state tournament were shattered.

Now, with Abel and Mills graduated, the Cardinals are not only without the powerful running back combination, but also without many of the talented and experienced hands that helped the team through the 2005 season. Gone is experienced quarterback Kyle Brouhard, big play receivers Mark Abel and Miles Cleveland and seven other seniors.

Now the Cardinals football program has its work cut out for it.

Eudora coach Gregg Webb said filling the positions would not be an easy task and was giving some players lots of experience in one position to help smooth the transitional period.

"We have some younger kids that will step up," Webb said. "We're trying to put them on one side of the ball. We want kids to have a ton of reps so they won't have to worry about anything else. We'll find a way to do it and get it done."

But no matter how many reps they get, replacing the seniors will no doubt prove to be a daunting task.

Webb said Brouhard could do what many good quarterbacks struggle with -- making good plays in bad situations. Brouhard also exuded a tough and aggressive demeanor that was well respected around the league.

Senior Kent Swanson will be the first to try to fill Brouhard's huge shoes, and while Webb said the differences between Swanson and Brouhard are night and day, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

He said Swanson is very careful and thoughtful with his plays. Where Brouhard was free-wheeling, Swanson is mechanical and has a tremendous arm.

"Kyle was a do-it-all guy and brought a lot of leadership to the team," Swanson said. "I've got to lead by example and work hard just to try to get the team to work as a unit."

Webb said Swanson is progressing as the new starting quarterback, but the coaches won't put as much pressure on him from the get-go, like they did with Brouhard. He said he wants Swanson to just focus on getting a lot of repetitions under his belt and not worry about anything else for now.

Another player that will surely be missed is running back Luke Abel. Abel played in just eight games last year, but finished fifth in the league in rushing, piling up 930 yards and nine touchdowns on 141 carries.

Webb said Abel's main strength was using his small stature and quick moves to slip through holes in the opposing team's line. He said replacing a player like that may be too big of a job for any one back.

He appointed a committee to help shoulder the burden. Loni Ogden, junior Travis Clarke and sophomore Ryan Fisher were chosen because they can each bring different strengths to the position.

"Luke was a great running back," Webb said. "He took some shots and one of those shots hurt him. We are still looking at three replacements to replace him through committee."

Ogden has the most experience of the group and served as the primary backup last season, rolling up 159 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season. Clarke carried the ball six times while Fisher will be making his varsity debut carrying the ball.

Who lines up at tailback could be a moot point, however, without Mills clearing the way. Webb said steamrolling fullbacks don't show up every year, and losing a block-anyone-and-everyone fullback like Mills will be very tough.

"If you're an offensive football coach you would just love to have a fullback like him every year," Webb said.

But filling open positions is just half the battle. There are some things that can never be replaced. Webb said one such thing that the 2006 graduates possessed was an unrivaled level of athleticism.

Mark Abel and Cleveland showcased their wheels as the team's top two receivers. They combined for 44 receptions and seven touchdowns during the regular season while fellow senior Rodney Spillman added two more from the tight end position.

Matthew Abel should be the primary candidate to fill in at receiver. Abel had just one touchdown reception in 2005, but averaged more than two catches a game and racked up 186 yards prior to the playoffs.

While last year's senior class provided plenty of advantages, Webb was quick to point out that the 2006 team brings some advantages of its own, the most impressive being a larger offensive line.

He said this year's players are bigger than any since he arrived as the Cardinals' head coach five seasons ago, and that's a nice thing to have as his team breaks in a new group of running backs, quarterbacks and receivers.

Only the future knows what is in store for the 2006 season, but if time has taught anything, it's that this team learns from the past. Maybe that test drive the Cardinals took last year helped to prepare them for life without several experienced players.

Webb said he's confident that when the lights kick on and the band fires up for the first game Sept. 1, the transition from the senior football players of 2005 to the team of 2006 will be smooth.

"I'm really proud of the kids and the effort this past week," Webb said. "They know they have to work hard if they want to be as good as we want to be."

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