After riding the talented class of 2017 to back-to-back winning seasons, the Scotland County football program has big shoes, or in this case sets of cleats, to fill heading into the 2017 season. That is not to say that the Tigers don’t have their fair share of talent returning, making a third straight winning season a distinct possibility.
If the Tigers can reach the goal, it will guarantee Coach Troy Carper will have a career mark over .500. Carper enters his first year at the helm of the SCR-I program with his work cut out for him. The first-year head coach will have to replace two all-state stalwarts from his top performing defense a season ago.
As defensive coordinator of last year’s 7-4 squad, Carper witnessed standout performances from defensive back Ryan Slaughter and linebacker Aaron Blessing. The Missouri Football Coaches Association named Slaughter First Team All State after he led the team with 109 tackles and added two interceptions. Blessing earned second taem all-state accolades, finishing second on the squad with 104 tackles.
“Obviously those two are going to be difficult to replace,” said Carper. “We graduated a very talented class of kids. I’m not sure everyone totally grasps how special that group was.”
But Carper said he has had a talented group of athletes in camp ready to fill those voids.
“We have some really good players, some of them who may have been stuck behind that Class of 2017, who are now going to get a shot to shine,” said Carper.
The problem is, that while the kids who are now stepping up, provided necessary depth in previous seasons, the 2017 Tigers don’t currently have that kind of depth.
“Numbers are going to be an issue,” said Carper. “I like what we are putting on the field, but we are going to have to stay healthy. Our roster is small but it’s dedicated.”
While the new coach says that there are definitely some kids walking the hallways at SCR-I that would have helped the program, he couldn’t be more pleased with the dedication demonstrated by the band of players who have been there since day one.
“Several of the kids came to me and said they wanted to play both offense and defense and that they didn’t want to come out of the game,” said Carper.
The coach explained to the players that his first job was to keep them safe and healthy, and in order to do that, they were going to have to demonstrate a state of conditioning that would allow him to be comfortable to play them more.
“It started right away,” Carper said. “Those kids stayed after practice for voluntary extra conditioning. Then I see them out running around town. Not driving around hanging out, but really running to get into even better shape.”
It’s that type of dedication that has lent itself to hope the Tigers can continue their recent winning ways and maybe even get back to the district title game to erase the sour taste of last year’s 44-42 defeat to Mark Twain.
Quarterback Will Fromm said that loss, which came down to a failed last-second two-point conversion, after a big comeback by SCR-I, is serving as motivation for the current squad.
The junior will take over as the team’s primary signal caller, after seeing time last year at both quarterback and receiver. Fromm completed 43 of 77 passes for 554 yards and seven TDs.
SCR-I’s receiving corps is going to have to develop some new threats after graduating the top three threats. Slaughter led the squad with 24 catches for 432 yards and six TDs. Also gone are Ian See and his 14 grabs for 203 yards, and Aaron Buford, who caught 11 passes for 187 yards and two scores.
Gage Dodge will be the top returning receiver. The senior was third on the team with 12 receptions for 133 yards.
Carper is expecting Brett Monroe and Jace Morrow to step up. Both saw limited time a season ago when Monroe caught five passes for 50 yards and a TD while Morrow had two grabs for 24 yards and a TD. Matthew Woods will also factor into the rotation.
“They are going to be a key to our success,” said Carper. We’re going to have to catch the ball.”
Carper said he hopes to have a balanced attack, passing as much as 50% of the time, with a lot of motion out the pistol sets to move the defensive ends and linebackers around into coverage to try and open up some running lanes.
A veteran offensive line will also play a big part in the team’s success. Starters Stephen Terrill, Bryson Orton and Mason Kliethermes return to anchor the squad, which gelled last year after losing starting center Will Pickerell for the year with a pre-season knee injury. After staring on the defensive line last year, Grant McRobert will move into a starting role on the offensive line as well. Dylan Karch played at various spots on the line a season ago and will take over as a starter in 2017 to replace Blessing.
The rushing attack will have a new look as top rushers Buford and Austin Day have graduated, taking with them a combined 1,450 yards and 18 TDs.
Jayden Payne has been tabbed the starting tailback after being forced into duty in last year’s playoffs due to injuries. He carried the ball 12 times for 57 yards and scored two TDs in the playoffs.
Dodge ran the ball 39 times a year ago for 168 yards and two TDs while Fromm ran the ball 70 times for 273 yards and two TDs.
On the other side of the ball, Terrill will return at defensive end where he amassed 83 tackles as well as three quarterback sacks. Orton is back as the run stopper up the middle where he anchored the defensive line from his tackle spot. McRobert and Karsh will round out the front four in Carper’s base 4-3 defense.
While Blessing’s departure leaves a hole at middle linebacker, Carper said he likes what he has seen thus far in practice from Payne who will slide into that spot, leaving Kliethermes at the outside backer spot where he made 72 tackles a year ago. Luke Triplett and Branton Burrus are battling for the other starting spot.
The defensive backfield is going to be another key to the Tigers’ 2017 outcomes. Carper has to replace all-starter Slaughter as well as Buford and Griffin Kerkmann, Dodge is the lone starter returning.
“The secondary is going to be crucial,” said Carper. “We have a lot of new faces back there, and they are just going to need to get more and more reps to help them identify and make the right reads.”
Monroe and Woods are in the mix with Parker Triplett at the cornerback slot opposite of Dodge, who also could see time at one of the safety spots. Fromm likely will start at one of the safety positions, with Morrow and Kayden Anders also expected to see time there.
Carper said in addition to Anders, fellow freshman Preston Sanchez has been impressive in early workouts, as has newcomer Conner Harrison, as the team works to develop the next wave of talent.
SCR-I will open the season Friday night at home versus Marceline in a Lewis & Clark Conference matchup. The visiting Tigers made it to the second round of the state playoffs a year ago, posting a 12-2 record with a conference title and a perfect 8-0 mark in league play in 2016.