By AUSTIN COLBERT
The Hays High School football team tried, and failed, to implement a spread offense last season, its final under coach Ryan Cornelsen, now at Hutchinson High School. The goal was to use quarterback Alex Delton's athleticism, but between a lingering groin injury and the team's dominant rushing attack with Preston Weigel, the HDN offensive player of the year and an Oklahoma State University wrestling signee, the offense remained grounded most of the year.
However, a lot has changed since the Indians finished the season 6-3 and missed out on the state playoffs. Weigel graduated, Delton -- a Kansas State University football commit -- is now a healthy senior, and longtime Great Bend head coach Bo Black has taken over for Cornelsen.
And one thing Black has a reputation for is offensive innovation, especially when it comes to the spread offense.
"If you are going to run that kind of offense you have to have a quarterback that can run and throw," said Black, who believes Delton perfectly fits his vision of the offense. "It's always a work in progress and it's never been game No. 1 where it's fully ready to go. So it takes a while, understanding where we are supposed to be. There is still quite a ways to go but we are starting to get the basics of it and pick the pace up a little bit and understand the concepts, and that's a good start for us."
The most noticeable difference with this year's offense will be at running back. The past three seasons the team has been built around big, physical running backs like Weigel and current Pittsburg State Gorilla David Cardinal. Stepping into those shoes will be 5-foot-9, 152-pound senior Adam Klaus and 5-foot-9, 155-pound junior Isaiah Blackmon. While neither brings much size, their speed and versatility as receivers will more than make up for it.
Connor Rule, a 6-foot-0, 197-pound junior fullback, could be used as a goal line back when needed.
"Adam Klaus has been running a lot of tail back out of the spread," senior receiver Hayden Kreutzer said. "And he's good. He's really smart at finding the holes and his cuts and everything. He'll be good back there. He is running some slot, too."
Kreutzer will look to lead a receiving unit trying to replace Fort Hays State University football signee Clayton Riedel and Tennessee State University football signee Lane Clark, who was also the team's starting kicker last year. At 6-foot-0, 178 pounds, Kreutzer is a far cry from the 6-foot-5 frame Riedel had, but size at the skill positions is a luxury the Indians can afford to live without if the offense can execute Black's vision.
An emerging weapon this season could be 6-foot-3, 229-pound sophomore tight end Shane Berens, who Black believes can develop into a luxury as both a blocker and receiver.
"He's going to be great. He is only a sophomore and he's got great hands. Just a really, really good football player," Black said. "I think we want to try and keep (the offense) pretty balanced and take what the defense is giving us. The vision is to move way faster than we are right now. That's probably been the hardest transition for the kids."
The offensive line will be an experienced group, led by senior right tackle Brandon Hardwick (6-3, 236 pounds), senior right guard Craig Dreiling (5-7, 268 pounds) and senior left guard Ethan Deterding (6-1, 190 pounds). Senior Trenton Henningsen (6-0, 229 pounds) will start at left tackle and junior Braydon Delzeit (5-11, 241 pounds) at center.
Hardwick, Dreiling, Delzeit and Berens will make up the defensive line, which will be part of an experienced defensive unit as a whole, especially in the front seven.
With Deterding and Rule returning at linebacker, Blackmon will enter the mix as well after the Indians lost Ty Whittington to graduation. Klaus and Kreutzer will be joined by seniors Brenden Ibarra and Garrett Pfannenstiel in the secondary.
"We are feeling really confident as a group playing defense," Kreutzer said. "We have a lot of good returners coming back, Brandon Hardwick being one of them. Ethan Deterding will be really good on our defense. We had changes at the corner and safety position but they are doing pretty good this year."
A major concern will be replacing Clark at kicker, the role he plays at Division I TSU. Those duties will rest this season on senior Kyler Leiker, who is also a key piece of the Indians' soccer team this fall. Possibly getting an opportunity to kick this season is Clark's younger brother, Logan Clark, a freshman.
Klaus and Kreutzer will handle return duties, and Black even said he isn't outside of letting Delton return a kickoff from time to time. Senior Tathan Burhart will replace Kiowa Higdon as the team's punter.
"Hays High School has been really spoiled for a long time having a kicker of (Clark's) quality. But Kyler Leiker is a soccer kid that's coming over at the beginning of practice before soccer practice starts. I think he is going to do some things," Black said. "Then we really feel we have five or six guys that can go back on kickoffs, with Alex being one of them at times."
Also new this season will be Hays High's move to the newly created Class 4A Division I, where they are projected by many to be one of the top teams in the classification. Competing with them in district play will be Abilene, McPherson and the defending 4A state champs, Buhler.
"It'll be exciting," Hardwick said. "McPherson we've seen in the last few years. It'll be good having the 4A state champ in our district to be able to compare ourselves to."
The Indians will open their season at 5:30 p.m. Friday against Class 6A Olathe Northwest, which is coming off a 3-6 season, at the Olathe District Activity Center. Hays High's home opener is Week 3 against Liberal, following Week 2's game at Black's former home, Great Bend.
"The last three years it's been fun but it's been the same thing over and over. This year it's completely different, all the way from summer weights, boot camp, and then all the way from spreading the ball. It brings a sense of enthusiasm to the team," Kreutzer said.
"In the locker room the vibe is going to be way more up than last year. We are going to get out there and hopefully play some pretty good football."