Blazers Focus? Survival
Younger Spotswood To Lean On Line, Quarterback Polglase
PENN LAIRD – The Trailblazers are treating the 2014 football season like their own version of “Survivor,” a popular reality television show that Spotswood High School coach Chris Dodson follows religiously and was once a finalist for in its sixth season.
That sort of makes him an expert at surviving, which Dodson said will be Spotswood’s goal in its first four games – a challenging non-district schedule that includes Western Albemarle, William Monroe, Wilson Memorial and Central – after graduating 23 seniors.
“We won three of the first four going into the Valley,” said Dodson, whose team lost 17-14 to Western last year before winning nine straight games, including a sweep of the Valley District. “If we can do that again this year, then we have a chance to be really great.”
Then-senior tailback Matt Slater ran for over 1,600 yards and set a single-season school record with 31 touchdowns in leading the Blazers to a 9-2 record and their first playoff berth since 2007. However, it was a short stay in the playoffs as Hidden Valley upset Spotswood 21-7 in the first round, keying on Slater with a set of elite linebackers.
Replacing Slater – who was also a dominant, full-time starting safety – will be virtually impossible. And that’s OK with Dodson. In his mind, the Blazers might be better off balancing the offense with more passes and utilizing more of a running back-by-committee approach this season.
“A big example of that is when we went to the playoffs and Hidden Valley had the two big guys inside, and they were hard to block,” Dodson said. “They really, I think, flowed to Matt Slater the whole game. So, I think it makes us a better team. We don’t have to rely as much on one or two guys.”
Returning senior Mike Soard and sophomore newcomer Brady Dodson – Chris Dodson’s son – have taken a majority of the reps at tailback during the preseason, with scat back Khalil Davis mixing in when he’s not split out wide as a receiver.
Junior incumbent quarterback Zach Polglase will be heading into his second season under center, and will be one of several players stepping into heightened leadership roles following the graduation of Slater, offensive tackle Ben Winegard, linebacker Billy Ehle and defensive tackle Michael Hernandez.
Polglase – the son of James Madison University deputy athletic director Geoff Polglase – even got extra pointers during the preseason from Ross Bowers, a quarterback from Bothell High School (near Seattle) who has committed to California. Bowers, the son of JMU assistant coach John Bowers, came to one Spotswood practice last week while in the area.
Speaking of JMU connections, SHS’s sole freshman Pierce Withers is on Spotswood’s roster. He’s the son of the Dukes’ new football coach, Everett Withers, and will play wide receiver and cornerback.
But for an offense that scored 400 points last season (36.4 points per game) to continue to find success, Spotswood’s overhauled line will have to gel and stay healthy.
“I think the outside perception is we lost 23 seniors, so we’re not going to be very good,” Chris Dodson said. “I think the inside perception is that we’re loaded at all the skill positions, two- and three-deep. And we learned how to win games last year.
“We’re a little shallow in our offensive line – not in talent, but just in depth, which is our biggest concern. So we can’t get hurt. Injuries could really hurt our season. But if we’re healthy, we’re the best team in the league.”
Survive and conquer.
Last year, the Blazers did just that in the Valley with a massive offensive line that typically featured up to four 300-plus-pounders, including 6-foot-5, 345-pound tackle Zack Seekford. Five offensive linemen graduated, leaving senior Andrew Coffman to lead the Blazers into 2014. The 320-pound Coffman will move from guard to left tackle, and 340-pound junior Austin McAdams will also kick out to right tackle.
“We just need to mesh well,” Coffman said. “This year, we’re going to be a lot more balanced. Not as much run. Probably 50-50 with run and pass. We just need to get our blocking right, and we’ll be fine.”
SHS defensive coordinator John Weeks basically knew who his starters would be going into 2013, with several experienced players returning. This season, it’s been more of an open competition with moving pieces.
“I just think we’re going to have a lot more rotation,” said Weeks, who will rely on the experience of three seniors: defensive end Stanton Shull and linebackers Hunter Garrison and Soard. “There will be a lot more guys getting looks.”
Who will be the backfield disruptor with defensive end Caleb Detamore, Hernandez and Ehle all gone to graduation? Well, Shull had an under-the-radar seven sacks last season, benefitting from the stars around him.
“I’ve got to work harder, because I don’t have guys like Caleb and all of them to set good plays up for me,” said Shull, who will also add an offensive role at fullback. “I have to make them myself. … But I think with the guys around me, we all have ample opportunity to get the job done. As a defensive line, we’re going to be pretty strong again.”
Weeks said Ben Bennington has caught his eye, “exploding” on the defensive line. The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder projects as a starter at defensive tackle.
“It’s been very intense in practice,” Coffman said. “… We may have lost a lot of seniors, but we still have the players where we need them.”
Can SHS earn back-to-back playoff berths for the first time since 2002?
“We’re a pretty young team this year,” Coffman said. “If we get down in a game, we just have to be able to survive and keep fighting to come back and win the game. We don’t have – it’s really just a test of will this year, to see if [we] have the heart to keep playing.”