MIDDLEBURY — A Middlebury Union High School team with at least the usual high hopes and at least a little bit of a new look will kick off the MUHS season on Friday night at 7 p.m., when the Tigers host Division-I rival Essex.
The Tigers are the first of all the local schools’ teams to host a game, although several others will swing into action this weekend and all will hit the field or the trail by the end of next week. (See story, right.)
Coach Dennis Smith said fans of the program can expect to see a lot of the same: a defense with five down linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties, and an offense with three running backs that prefers to keep the ball on the ground.
“We’re Middlebury, and we’re going to be doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve got a few variations that we’ll throw in as the season goes on, but we’re going to stick with what keeps getting us in the playoffs,” Smith said. “And hopefully we’ll get over that hump from there.”
That offense will play at a quicker pace, however. The team will not huddle up while the quarterback calls the plays, but instead rely on signals from the sideline. That system means a faster tempo that the Tiger coaches hope will wear down opponents.
“We’re going no-huddle right now, trying to put some more pressure on the defense, get them on their heels,” Smith said. “Plus, third, fourth quarter, they’re the ones hopefully getting gassed, not us, and we’re putting even more pressure on them so we’re scoring more points.”
Junior Austin Robinson will do some of the ballcarrying and hand off to senior fullback Jakob Trautwein or one of four running backs: senior Nick Felkl or juniors Sam Smith, Cullen Hathaway or Bobby Ritter.
Opening holes will be center Samuel Messenger, guards Josh Stearns and Holden Yildirim, and tackles Sam Usilton and James Ploof. Junior Justin Stone and senior Josiah Benoit will rotate at tight and split ends, and Ritter or junior Connor Quinn could also line up wide.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Trautwein is the nose tackle, juniors Sam Killorin and Lucas Plouffe are the defensive tackles, and Usilton and Stone the ends. Stearns and Nicholas Audet are the top linebackers, Ritter and Smith the corners, and Robinson and senior Nathan Peck the starting safeties, Coach Smith said.
They will be spelled frequently: Smith said the team has depth.
“I feel we can rotate guys and not lose much this year, offensively or defensively,” he said.
As for Essex, Smith expects Brandon Gleason, who is small, but quick, to take over at quarterback and add a new dimension to the Hornet aerial attack.
“We’ve got to keep an eye on him because he’s nifty when he’s running,” he said.
But the Tiger coaches expect a similar spread offense that prefers to attack through the air, and plan to use the same game plan that they believe should have produced a win last fall: Essex scored 14 late points to defeat the Tigers, 21-20.
“Our feeling is stop the pass, because an offense like that doesn’t want to be running the ball 75 percent of the time. They want to pass 75, 80 percent of the time. So we’re going to do just what we did last year. We should have won last year’s game,” Smith said.
Ultimately, as almost always, he believes the game will hinge on which team executes better.
“It’s game one. It comes down to who makes the most mistakes,” he said. “You cut back on the mistakes, the turnovers, you really should have a good chance of winning.”
Following Essex at MUHS will be Hartford a week from Friday at 7 p.m., and then tough games against 2012 playoff teams Colchester and Rutland.
“We’ll learn a lot the first four or five weeks. Our schedule doesn’t soften up,” Smith said. “But we’ll take on anybody. We don’t worry about that. You’ve got to take them all on eventually. We look forward to the challenge.”