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2018 Gridiron: Macon Tigers

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Total Returning Lettermen: 23

2017 Overall Record: 7-4

Head Coach: Pete Claas

Years at School: 16

Record at School: 102-62

Overall Record: 119-75

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STRAIGHT NASH, HOMIE: DAZZLING CACHE OF SKILL POSITION WEAPONS EARNS TIGERS A SEAT AT THE TABLE

CLAAS CONSCIOUSNESS: The Macon Tigers opened the 2017 campaign with quite a statement; limiting Palmyra to just seven points in an impressive takedown of the Powerhouse Panthers. Moreover, the game itself proved to both a harbinger of things to come offensively and the genesis of star-making seasons for new Quarterback Nash Waller and elevated-to-Feature Back status Runner Kevin Edwards. That duo would go on to headline an offense that churned out 4317 total yards and 365 points on the season in route to a seven win campaign. Better still for Tiger Fans, they did so as Underclassmen; portending an even brighter future ahead for an explosive attack that would return seven starters deep in 2018. And yet, it’s not unfair to ask if Macon will have enough substance to go along with all that sizzle. The Tigers graduation losses were more considerable in scope than they were in scale because of the “who’s who” of Award Winning Defensive Lynch Pins and Flat-backing Blockers included in the final balance sheet. Five of the ten Tiger graduates were Post Season honorees the caliber of Jeffrey Smoot, Tynan Mitchell, Cade Hicks, Shane Levett and Tyrone Hicks. And if you ever saw those gents play in concert with one another, you know full well what an important chunk of lost productivity, fire and toughness that represents. The issue at sway then for the Macon Tigers in 2018 is whether Pete Claas can conjure up enough production from the Blue Collar positional set make all that White Collar stat production resonate in the standings.

WHERE WERE YOU WHEN BEN SONTHEIMER BROUGHT THE TIGERS IN: I’ve been writing this magazine for almost 15 years now and this is the first time I can remember sitting down to break down a Macon Squad and finding that didn’t have in place a returning Defensive lynchpin of some kind or another at the ready. I think that says more about the quality of the Seniors that Defensive Coordinator Ben Sontheimer had at its disposal than some failing of the Tiger “farm system” for lack of a better term. Given the work rate of Smoot/Levett/Mitchell and friends, there just wasn’t a lot of oxygen left in the room, nor imperative for Underclassmen to pad their stats. Still, it’s strange to see in print that Justin Hayes 47 tackles in 2017 is benchmark for returning players; stranger still when you consider that Justin is a Defensive Back. Welcome to the new construct, my friends. The 2018 Tiger Defense will be built from the back forward because a Secondary led by Hayes, Bradley Butner (20 tackles) and Brady Moots (17 stops) is the most proven commodity on the board. Moreover, Macon has the luxury of potentially adding Nash Waller and Kevin Edwards to the mix as needed. There’s a deep well of Juniors who could expand the depth chart as well in Garrett Blaise, Blake Claas, Timmy Watts, Cruz Lewis and Brennan Moots. Granted, there aren’t any All NCMC performers here yet; still options aplenty.

BRAY MATTER: Things get a little trickier in the Front Seven, absent so much proven productivity. Linebacker Kendrick Waddle (43 tackles, 2 INT, 2 Fumble Recoveries) is statistically the top holdover candidate. Beyond that, it’s basically open audition time this Summer for prospective Tiger Run Stuffers. Senior Tony Akery (6’1” 180lbs) figures to be in that mix as a returning Letter Winner. Junior Dominick Mitchell is an athletic flyer who could expand the range of this group. Fellow classmate Tyrel Enyard profiles in the mold of a stalwart Middle Linebacker at 6’2” 195 pounds. In the Defensive Pits, both Seth Bray and Colton Christensen are back after solid, if not spectacular Junior campaigns. Bray (6’ 240lbs) amassed 35 tackles and a quarterback sack a year ago. Christensen (6’ 235lbs) posted 38 stops and also added a QB Quash to the cause. Depending upon how Macon wants to play this from a Depth Chart perspective, the Tigers could beef up the D-Line with addition of Caden Phillips (6’6” 325lbs) and Lane Blackford (6’2” 245lbs) Senior Jacob Diekamp could join this Frontline Fraternity. From the Junior Class, expect Taylor Smith (6’ 265lbs) as well as Aaron Jefferson (5’8” 215lbs) and Max Cook (6’4” 240lbs) will vie here for reps as well. Clearly, there is the potential for usable depth here. It will be interesting to see, however, how Macon compensates for losing a true havoc wrecker in Jeffery Smoot at Nose Tackle. The future Quincy University Hawk was so individually dominant that he was essentially at times, a safety net for his teammates. That crutch is gone and everyone up front is going to have to significantly ramp up their performances in Smoot’s absence. That said, the stage is also now totally cleared for the kid who wants to jump in and prove his own individual worth and talent. It will be telling to see who comes forward and who rises for Macon in such a critical roster fix.

EARNING HIS STRIPES: Given the glut of great running backs in Northeast Missouri, I still tend to think Kevin Edwards still doesn’t get enough notice. I know it seems paradoxical for a near 1700 yard rusher to be undervalued but Edwards doesn’t seem to enjoy the same top-of-mind recognition as some of his other Conference brethren. Make no mistake, however. Clarence Cannon Conference Defensive Coordinators know exactly who he is and just how much relative value he adds to a Tiger Offense that averaged 33 points per game a year ago. The 5’8” 175 pounder is obviously fast (see also the nine yards per carry average) but more impressively from this vantage point, he doesn’t seem to experience any attrition of that burst over the course of four quarters; which makes him more vexing to try and chase down on tired legs. Kevin is also remarkably durable, rolling up 187 carries last Fall. And he is versatile enough weapon to employ as a play action passing game threat out of the Backfield. The Tigers can likely spell him a bit more this Fall as well and keep those legs Fresh thanks to the emergence of Dominick Mitchell (215 yards and 3 touchdowns in spot duty) as well as the deep reserve of positional candidates that includes Kendrick Waddle, Tony Akery, Brady Moots, Garrett Blaise, and Brennan Moots. Still, Edwards is the straw that stirs the drink. A returning First Team All-District selection with proven pedigree and yet some still unrealized next level potential that makes him a dazzler. Expect a huge season here.

NASH BRIDGES THE GAP: Pete Claas baptized Nash Waller by fire last Fall, giving the then Junior Quarterback start Number One on opening night against no less than Palmyra’s Defense. Given the scenario and degree of difficulty, the fact that Waller was able to help engineer a win there was victory enough. That he showed panache and dash at times (as well as a few skittish nerves) from snap one was simply icing on the cake. That would become a season hallmark and beguiling glimpse into the future. From a pure potential standpoint, it could be argued that Waller might have the highest ceiling of any Quarterback prospect in our area. He completed 59% of his passes in Year One, on 171 attempts. He threw for 21 touchdowns and 1479 yards figuring out the position on the fly. Moreover, Nash showed great escape and the ability to project dual threat danger with 628 rushing yards and another eight touchdowns on the ground. And the scary thing about all the statistical goodness is that I would argue Waller produced it at about 75% of his total capability. The game at times, last Fall, still ran a little too fast for him. He didn’t always look comfortable or make the smartest read. That’s just maturity and polish and a year later, with savvy now under his belt, Waller figures to be more Quarterback than gunslinger. He reminds me a ton of former KHQA Player of the Year Brodie Dunker, with better mobility if not quite as cannon-esque an arm. There’s unteachable, preternatural virtuoso quarterbacking talent there; but also occasional errors of enthusiasm you have to make your peace with as part of the overall package. But if Nash learns as little restraint in trying to not force the risky pass and cuts down his interceptions; we are talking bona fide Player of the Year candidate in his own right.

THE TRIPLETS: Macon’s skill position treasure trove includes a third First Team All-CCC Skill position performer in Wide Receiver Bradley Butner; a 6’3” 210 pound matchup nightmare for high school Defensive Backs. Butner caught 27 passes a year ago, a third of which resulted in touchdowns. He’s a fluid route runner at that prodigious size and is nearly impossible to deter from catching the ball over the top, given his strength and reach. He obviously found a great working chemistry with Nash Waller from the jump and given some of the graduation losses at Receiver for this squad, Bradley figures to be targeted far more aggressively in 2018. He averaged almost 19 yards a catch a year ago and seems like the guy most probably destined for double coverage the entire Fall. Cultivating alternative threats here to Butner in the passing game will be crucial. Kendrick Waddle had 13 receptions and year ago for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Justin Hays, Timmy Watts, and Cruz Lewis are potential options at Wide Reciever whil Tyrel Enyard has the size and physicality to help really become a nice short yardage/red zone threat at Tight End. Again, assuming a few individual ascents here, Macon poses the most advance passing threat of any team in Tri-State Football. And Bradley Butner is one heck of a headliner on that marquee.

HOLD THE DOOR: No pressure but on premise it would seem that Macon’s season prospects will rise or fall on the quality of Offensive Line play the Tigers receive. Granted, you could make that kind of clichéd argument for every team at every level of Football. Given Macon’s incredible array of weapons and the ability they have to use them to build imposing leads in an instant, however, you see the specificity of the challenge here. So much of Macon’s statistical success a year ago traced back to the work of three year starters Jeffery Smoot and Shane Levett contributed to making blocking a net positive in Macro for Macon and allowing Waller and Edwards room to make magic happen. Put simply, the Tigers don’t have that luxury any more on the line. There will be three new starters in the mix and only Caden Phillips as a proven (and exceptionally promising commodity) product into the future. Lines take time to develop a working chemistry. Pete Claas will tell you point blank that he hopes the experience of the Skill Position Weapons here will carry his Offense through/ease the potential learning curve for his new line. Again, there is some size and potential depth here. Anxious to see how quickly Line Coach Josh Klusmeyer can accelerate that process and bring the entire Macon offense into balance.

THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: To put into perspective Macon’s 2017 season, I would remind you the Tigers four losses came at the hands of a State Champion, a State Semifinalist (twice) and a Class Four District Champion. That schedule isn’t getting any easier with Monroe City, Clark County, and Moberly all profiling just as strongly as they did a year ago. Not to mention revenged minded Palmyra and Centralia squads lurking. Talk about swimming at the deep end of the pool. And yet, I don’t think Pete Claas’ expectation that his 2018 squad should be better overall that last year’s is all that far-fetched. Where Macon has strength, there are few teams in the state that can match the Tigers man for man in those areas. It’s simply a matter of what level of productivity Coach Claas and his talent staff coax out of the preseason soft spots (Line Play, Linebacker) that will ultimately determine if Macon is merely just a really good team again or a legitimate threat to take down a Clarence Cannon Conference title or District Championship at Clark County or Palmyra’s expense. We’ve learned over the years that betting against Pete Claas to find a way to maximize assets is a fool’s errand. That said, it’s going to take elite tackling at all levels of a defense to get that done against the Zach Osborns, Calep Lapsleys, and Jarom Alexanders of the World in 2018. This is next level defensive stuff and until we see if Macon is capable of making those kind of stops against that level of kids, they are a less safe bet head to head against the power elite of the Cannon and the District. But if that does fall into place, Macon’s explosive offensive gives them a shot to beat anyone on a given night. I guess we will await our answers in early September. The Schedule is favorable early, gives Macon a chance to build some real confidence headed into a road trip to Monroe City in Week Four that kicks off the real meat of that brutish stretch run. I guess nothing would surprise me here, even a scenario where Macon’s best incarnation emerges and the Tigers overthrow the expected Cannon Power Structure. In that sense, this group is the biggest X factor in the best small school Football Conference in the state of Missouri. And as such, the Tigers drip with intrigue and potential. If it translates, my Goodness it will be a wild October on the NEMO Gridiron for all involved.

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