2014 BARNSTORM TOUR NOTES
STOP TWO: PARIS COYOTES
Among the most intriguing NEMO teams we cover given last season's six win breakout and the Coyotes uber-explosive passing game, which netted 2661 passing yards and 33 touchdowns a season ago. That is Jacksonville Crimson type production in the spread. And the return of lefty quarterback Kyle Popkes and two very accomplished receivers in Lane Forrest and returning All Stater Slater Stone means there will be more to come via the air from Gary Crusha's group. Bottom line, Paris was incredibly good in one phase of the game last season; good enough throwing the football to reverse the fortunes of a formerly flagging program. But there was not middle ground as the Coyotes were ineffective running the football and obscenely generous on Defense. In short, the 2013 version of this team was like your eight year old brother's Madden team. Or like Amare Stoudamire's entire basketball peak. All the eggs in one basket, ignore all else. I showed up in Paris looking for signs of growth in those problem areas. Crusha thinks we see plenty.
Bizzaro stat of the day: the Coyotes return 16 starters from last season, but have just 23 total players on the roster. Conventional wisdom suggests winning (and playing a fun style of football) would have brought out more kids. Paris has really good starters across the board, but virtually zero depth.
Most impressive surprise in my visit was the quality of the linemen in play. There aren't many of them and and they aren't very big. But these guys move well and play aggressively enough to help pave the way for better run production in the team's now two year old zone blocking scheme. August Hayhurst is the "name" guy here and he is a big, mobile dude. I came away impressed as well with Briar Hancock, who is a chip on the shoulder guy with great tenacity. The sleeper at this position, and maybe the biggest sleeper on the entire team, is Mike Ensor; a 240 pound tackle who passes the eye test and has really good feet. He has some ring rust to knock off, coming back out for football for the first time in a couple years but he is going to be a factor and could really help solidify both Paris lines.
Stone is a very physically imposing, strong wide receiver. You don't get that as much in uniform but saw the kid today and I can see beyond just his speed why he gives Defensive Backs fits. He's tough to bump off a pattern and the kind of long arms that are going to allow him to win a lot of 50/50 throws. Of the recruit worthy Class 1 NEMO kids in our area, I'd say Slater Stone would top that list if I were a Division Two or NAIA type college. He's only going to get better with more seasoning.
Big fan of lefty quarterbacks. Popkes has kind of a different release, but it certainly is effective for him. Really positive, likable kid. And like Brett Threlkeld the day before, Kyle too was wearing the Captain America cleats this morning. Is this a Quarterback fad I was not made aware of? Whatever, I kind of did it.
With all the attention paid Kyle Popkes and Slater Stone, Lane Forrest is a guy who doesn't get nearly enough credit. He is coming off a 35 reception, 559 yard, 9 touchdown Sophomore Year performance and possesses truly great hands. In short, he's the perfect compliment guy to Stone because you simply can't double cover both kids. Don't be surprised to see Dylan Painter or rising Freshman Brett Miller profit as slot type receivers in this system with Stone and Forrest drawing the kind of attention they do.
Tucker Gruber has the inside track as the Coyotes Feature Back. Didn't get to see him run against contact obviously but Kyle Popkes described him to me as ground and pound guy with good strength and a low center of gravity. Again, I can't speak to what he will do when he gets the ball but I do think he will profit from some pretty good running lanes.
Defensively, there is proven production up front back in Hayhurst and Hancock, who each had 15 tackles for loss a season ago. And Slater Stone is a monster at Defensive Back, coming off a team leading 135 tackles a year ago. To be honest, I haven't seen enough of Paris to know how a team with these kinds of pieces gives up 35 points per game last Fall, but it did. But there are seven starters back from that unit and there has been a big commitment to better conditioning this off-season, so you'd have to think that number will fall. Crusha tells me the target is to limit opponents to less than 21 points per game this season. That is a big improvement, especially with the likes of Westran, Salisbury and Marceline on the slate.
The quality at the top end of the conference makes this next "step" for the Paris program an interesting one. You could argue this team could be vastly improved over last season and still end up stuck at six wins. By the same toke, a breakout win against any of the big three in the Lewis and Clark would go a long way in bolstering the psyche of a team that doesn't lack for confidence and seems to play loose.
Just a meaningless aside here but Gary Crusha is the best punting head coach I've seen. Guy was crushing it on Monday morning in practice.