Hillsboro High School football head coach Lance Sawyer knows stats can be manipulated. He knows film can tell a story, but not the whole story.
The only way he was going to learn about his new team was to see them in action. Football is about reaction and motor. Football is about the one-on-one battle, blocker against tackler, not giving up until the whistle sounds.
Sawyer’s last drill of the day on Thursday was designed to test the mettle of his players. It was designed to fail 60 percent of the time.
The tackler was the focus. He was on the opposite end of a blocker and runner, outnumbered. The trio was encircled by the rest of the team. The tackler was charged with shedding the blocker and bringing the runner to the turf. The runner could move all the way around the circle.
The drill was representative for life. It was not fair. Brawny players such as Dylan Jirak and Tyrell Thiessen bull rushed blockers into submission and quickly brought down ball carriers. Slender sophomores Grant Knoll and David Dick struggled mightily against larger blockers. Sawyer understood this. The first time he was part of the drill, he weighed 155 pounds and went up against a 300-pound monster left tackle. He was pushed to the ground and he never got back to his feet.
A rotation ensued where the runner became the blocker and the blocker became the tackler. The fatigue as a tackler made some watching teammates remark that they were tired just watching it.
What Sawyer is learning from drills like these is which players will go hard on every play, which players will push and push until sweat drips from their facemask in the fourth quarter.
“I learned a lot today,” Sawyer said.
Part of this informal examination is that Sawyer knows the talent is there; that much was obvious on the film he watched before he took the Hillsboro job.
He has two dual-threat quarterbacks who saw action at different positions last season. Senior Lucas Sinclair subbed in at quarterback last season, mainly to run the option. He is the favorite to win the spot, according to Sawyer.
Tyler Proffitt was the Trojans’ primary running back last season. He continued to get stronger as the season progressed with back-to-back 90-yard games against Hesston and Kingman.
Sawyer said Proffitt has an even better feel for the option than Sinclair. Regardless, whichever player does not play quarterback will see time at running back.
In front of them is a bruising offensive line featuring three seniors: Carter Pankratz, Nathan Unruh, and Jirak. Line is the area of the team with the least depth. Unruh and Jirak will be asked to play defensive line as well. If those players can stay healthy, the Trojans should be able to run or pass out of Sawyer’s spread offense system effectively.
Unruh and Josh Wiebe have taken on leadership roles with the team. Sawyer was especially impressed with Unruh’s instruction with young players.
“There’s a reason they’re team captains,” Sawyer said.
The position with the most depth is wide receiver. Senior Shaq Thiessen returns to lead the diverse group. Shaq Thiessen is the consistent threat to go deep on fade routes. His mixture of speed and jumping ability make him one of the toughest covers in the Central Kansas League. His concentration only increases in the red zone with some of his best catches last season resulting in touchdowns.
Trojan quarterbacks will have a variety of short passing options from the slot or tight end. Junior Evan Ollenburger returns as Hillsboro’s top blue-collar option. Ollenburger runs the slants, hooks, and outs that move the chains. He was also one of the Trojans’ top playmakers for hustle plays, whether on special teams, defense, or offense. Despite his slight build, he was never hesitant to mix it up with larger players. Sawyer should appreciate his toughness as either a receiver or defensive back.
Wiebe will again be the Trojans ‘tight end. At 6-foot-2, he makes a large target for passes.
Junior Jordan Faul will also be an option as a slot receiver or running back. Junior Jesse Brown may also see reps at wide receiver this season. Like Shaq Thiessen, Brown is a talented leaper, which he showcased in a state high jump appearance last year.
Junior receiver Christian Ratzlaff starts the season injured. Sawyer does not know if he will play this season.
The likely featured back in the Trojans’ offense will be Tyrell Thiessen. At 275 pounds, Tyrell Thiessen is a difficult player to tackle, nearly impossible if he can get into the opponent’s secondary.
However, Tyrell Thiessen’s more intriguing position will be on defense. He possesses a rare blend of quickness and strength. He could play any one of the positions along the line and eat up multiple blockers or play any line backing position. He did both last season and was equally successful. The team performed much better when he played defensive tackle, starting against Hesston for homecoming, a 16-10 win.
Line and linebacker should be strengths for the Trojans employing a 4-3 system under defensive coordinator Scott O’Hare. Jirak and Unruh showed the ability last season to stop the run as lineman.
Senior Tanner Jones returns at linebacker. Jones grew stronger as the season progressed last season, culminating in a six-tackle performance against Marion. He routinely wrapped up ball carriers at the line of scrimmage after taking the right angle on the play.
The Trojan secondary is more open with Shaq Thiessen, Ollenburger, Sinclair, Faul, and Brown all vying for spots.
Despite all of these returning players, Sawyer said that every position is still up for grabs. He is looking to see who wins the one-on-one battles, who has the better motor.
Decisions will start getting made soon. Sawyer is already focusing on the Trojans’ first game Aug. 31 against Lyons in Lyons.