After three seasons of nearly making playoffs, Craig football looks to seal deal
Janesville Craig is tired of being oh so close.
For three straight seasons, the Cougars have finished with a 4-5 record on the football field, one victory shy of a potential postseason berth.
Might 2014 be the year that they get over the hump and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008?
Head coach Ben McCormick hopes having a starting lineup made up nearly entirely of seniors—including a veteran defensive core—might help punch the team's ticket.
“Last year, we started about nine juniors on defense; I think there's a learning curve there,” McCormick said. “I think anytime, in any sport, a lot of times your biggest jump is your junior year to your senior year. You have a lot of confidence and know you're expected to be the leader.
“Usually it's a senior-dominated league, and we have a lot of seniors playing. These guys expect good things to happen.”
There were plenty of good things that occurred last year on the offensive side of the ball for the Cougars.
They scored at least 20 points in eight of their nine games and averaged more than 28 per contest. But many of the key speedsters and playmakers are gone, and McCormick welcomes back just three starters on that side of the ball.
“We're still going to run the option,” McCormick said. “We'll have some wrinkles off of it and do some things and hopefully get better in the passing game. I think we recognize we've got to get a little better at that.”
Among the new fresh faces is the coach calling the plays. McCormick had assumed those duties, but he'll hand the reigns off to Adam Bunderson. McCormick will shift more attention to defense following the departure of defensive coordinator Jim Reif.
Bunderson will relay his calls in to senior quarterback Shayne Ellis. The Cougars like Ellis' elusiveness, and he got experience last season at times when Tom Gabower was hurt.
“He's undersized and tall and thin, but he's really agile and elusive,” McCormick said. “For a thin guy, he can run the option pretty well.”
His main rushing targets in the option will be seniors Dan Ouimet and Nick Huber, who each stand 5-9 but bring different abilities at 150 and 190 pounds, respectively. Also included in the mix will be fullback Austin Huber and Harry Henschler.
Most of the backs can shift out to play receiver positions, and they'll be joined out there by Josh Ressler, Dan Gabower and Trayton Christiansen, among others.
The Cougars have a pair of leaders returning up front in seniors Ross Smith and Adam Carlson.
“I did not (expect Carlson's breakout) last year; I was surprised, but now we know he's got some expectations,” McCormick said of his honorable mention all-conference lineman. “He's a big kid and we expect him to get better.
“We've been thrilled with Ross Smith. He's smart and has good instincts. He's been a great leader, coaching guys up.”
Craig's defense provides enters the season in a completely opposite boat.
It gave up nearly 30 points per game, including 69 in Week 3 to Verona. But the Cougars return seven starters on that side of the ball, and they hope the experience—even with some rough patches—pays off.
“We've got some experience coming back,” McCormick said. “We'll start 11 seniors on defense. The senior and junior classes are both pretty deep. That gives us some depth.”
Nearly all of Craig's secondary returns, with Christiansen, Javen Murry and Justin Filter. Tyler Kind and Dan Gabower will join in as safeties.
Nowhere are the Cougars deeper than at linebacker, where Henschler is expected to wreak havoc on the outside. At his opposite is Alex Marro, a senior who didn't play the last two seasons due to baseball-related injuries.
“Harry can come off the edge, he can run, and he loves to hit,” McCormick said. “Both those guys can run well and are physical. We're pretty excited about those guys on the outside.”
Smith and Moore should be imposing threats at inside linebacker, giving the Cougars a solid back eight.
Kuhl and Kevin Brandt lead the way up front for a defense that needs to improve if it hopes to end its playoff drought.
Another key will likely be how the Cougars open their season. They open with Beloit Memorial, followed by dates with Parker, Verona and Madison East, so picking up a few early wins is imperative.
“We've been one game out, and we always know there are a couple of games that are pivotal,” McCormick said. “Those swing games are dogfights, and you've got to find a way to get a couple wins.”