With the kickoff of the 2014 high school football season quickly approaching, our reporters will be out at local practices checking in with contenders, dark horses and rebuilding teams alike as they gear up for the fall. Here is the latest installment of our Camp Countdown:
To begin the act of deception, Patuxent quarterback Tyler Crounse slid a football under Mikey Caputo’s left tricep – the one inked with a cross draped in American and Italian flags – and into the running back’s gut.
Crounse let the ball linger for a beat before he retracted the offering and advanced. Morphing into a blocker, Caputo created a running lane by punching Crounse’s father with both hands. Panthers Coach Steve Crounse finished the sequence with an admonishment for his oldest son.
“Be a magician with the ball,” he said, imploring the senior leader to hide the pigskin like Houdini. After eclipsing 2,000 yards rushing and 1,200 yards passing as a junior, Tyler Crounse should draw the attention of defenders with or without the ball in his hands.
A 10-year old assistant named Zach Crounse sat on a nearby blocking pad while freshman quarterback Reese Crounse, 14, rested on one knee. Their 5-year old sister was nowhere to be found on the practice field in Lusby, but it’s a safe bet she’s heard the read-option discussed at home.
Wednesday was first day of football practice at Patuxent, and the Crounse boys polished fundamentals of a spread system inspired by Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn.
In his first season as a full-time starter, Tyler Crounse quarterbacked the Panthers to 13 consecutive wins and a spot in the Maryland 2A state championship. The Panthers fell short, losing a 17-3 state final to Middletown.
Their hopes to return to the big game in Baltimore rest on continuity at quarterback.
“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Crounse said. “Having that first full year under your belt is kind of big.”
A championship-caliber defense at Middletown, where the Knights have won three consecutive state titles, convinced Crounse to spend his offseason developing as a passer.
“We can run all we want during the regular season,” Crounse said.
“When you get to the playoffs, that’s where you need to throw the ball because you’re going to play better defenses, faster defenses and – especially when you get to the state championship – play Middletown with giant defensive ends. You’re not going to manhandle them up front, so you have to be able to spread them out and take advantage of them any way we can.”
A pair of returning juniors will help Crounse balance the offense. Versatile athlete Greg Leonard and deep threat Tyler Gross both saw action as sophomores, and each can line up out wide, in the slot or the backfield.
While skill positions are a strength, but the Panthers are untested in the trenches.
Five new starters compose an offensive line that will be called upon to pull from every spot in a zone-blocking front. Junior tackle Tim Nickisch and senior guards Thomas Becknauld and Sutton Walker are all returning lettermen. Senior transfer Talmage Lewis logged experienced for Northern on both sides of the ball last season, and coaches are bullish on junior newcomer Alex Thompson at center.
“I like the five kids we have up there,” Steve Crounse said. “We’ve got to find some kids that are going to back them up because you know over the course of the season they’re going to get bumps and bruises and things are going to happen. Right now our main mission is to build that depth.”
With only 81 players signed up for varsity and JV, most starters have to play on both sides of the ball at Patuxent.
Nickisch is the team’s top defensive tackle. Becknauld and Lewis will also start on the line, and Walker is competing for a job at defensive end with 6-foot-3 sophomore Juan Watkins.
In addition to his duties as a deep threat on offense, Gross is the Panthers’ kick returner and the anchor of an experienced secondary. At free safety, he is the final line of defense Patuxent’s 4-2-5 front.
During a defensive back drill on Wednesday, Steve Crounse told Gross he’s never coming out of the game, even if he catches an 80-yard touchdown pass.
“I just feel honored to do that,” Gross said. “We don’t have a lot of people.”
Junior Jared Massengil and Tyler Crounse each boast experience as safety/linebacker hybrids inherent to a scheme that values speed.
The self-described heart of the unit announced himself with a booming voice at the beginning of the three-hour practice. Inside linebacker Geoff Ricker, who had 150 tackles last season according to Coach Crounce’s estimate, led the Panthers onto the field, directed a preliminary stretching session and broke them down with a choreographed call and response.
“Are you ready?!”
“Are you ready?!”
At that answer the long-haired, red-headed Ricker did his best Macho Man Randy Savage impersonation, sending his teammates to individual position drills with two claps and an “Oh yeah!”
“We call the middle linebacker the leader of the defense,” Ricker said. “That vocal leadership, I feel comfortable with it, and all my teammates and brothers, they feel comfortable with me doing it. It’s a great honor.”
Although Ricker said he wanted to establish a “smack you in the mouth” identity on defense, the Panthers are restricted to wearing just matte black helmets, jerseys and shorts for the first three days of practice. After that, the Maryland Public Secondary Athletics Association requires two more days in helmets and shoulder pads before teams can practice in full pads.
On a cloud-studded afternoon at Patuxent, that meant the Panthers had less weight to carry for the most dreaded portion of any team activity. As the day’s final order of business, Steve Crounse prescribed 20 sprints of 60 yards to be performed in under seven, eight, or nine seconds depending on the position group.
After a lineman nicknamed “Meatball” was the last to finish the 19th repetition, the Panthers held up four fingers for the universal sign of the final quarter.
As the team toed the line for its last sprint, somebody said, “Fourth quarter, last play of the state championship.”