Players will wear face coverings. There will be a limited number of fans, maybe 100, maybe more. No one is likely going to be worrying about heat protocols.
High school football is going to look and feel much different this spring. But it’s all the things that remain the same about the delayed 2020 season that has the focus of Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis.
“I think the way to create normalcy is just to do things like you’ve always done them,” Ollis said. “We’re just doing them in February rather than August.
“Our players have adapted very well. I think those teams that are going to be able to adapt and not get discombobulated about protocols and things we have to follow will be those teams that will be successful.”
How well Polk County handles the challenges of COVID-19 and its seven-game schedule begins to reveal itself on Friday, when the Wolverines travel to Hendersonville for their season opener. It will be Polk County’s first regular-season game since Nov. 22, 2019, a second-round playoff loss at Mitchell that capped a 9-4 season.
The memories of that season, which began with Polk County winning seven straight games. have helped fuel the Wolverines during the longest offseason that players and coaches have ever experienced. Ollis has talked often in the past year-plus about the positive approach that Polk County players have had in the weight room and in skill development work. But attitude can only last so long.
“We’re looking forward to football,” Ollis said. “I think coaches, players, fans, the limited number, are looking forward to having a real football season, and that’s always a motivator.
“This is the longest I’ve done self-talk, ‘okay, just keep pressing on.’ You kind of ebb and flow a little bit just because the time in between seasons has been so long. You can’t maintain fever pitch 24/7 seven days a week. You have to learn how to adapt to that.”
The lengthy break has provided Ollis and staff a chance to retool the Polk offense. The Wolverines will move away from the flexbone approach of recent seasons in favor of a multi-formation approach rooted in the pistol. The Wolverine offense will sometimes operate from the shotgun, sometimes under center, sometimes in a hybrid of both.
Helming that new approach will be sophomore quarterback Casey Beiler.
“I think that folks are going to see us throw the ball a little more,” Ollis said. “In Casey we have a kid that can really, the term is, spin the ball. He’s a very good thrower, he’s done a good job getting a little quicker, because you know, we’re still going to run a ball a little bit.
“We’ve got some guys on the edge now, some tall, athletic receivers, that can go up and get the football. We’ve got two very talented tight ends. We’ve got three or four really good running backs, so we’re gonna share the load a little bit.”
Leading that group of running backs is sophomore Angus Weaver. Named the 2019 Western North Caroina Newcomer of the Year by the Citizen-Times, Weaver rushed for a team-high 772 yards on 105 carries, scoring 10 touchdowns, while catching four passes for 52 yards.
“He’s a ball player,” Olliss said. “That’s the best way to put it. He has innate football ability, he loves the game, he’s got great instincts on defense, he runs the ball well, he catches the ball well, he’s a leader.”
Also returning in the Polk backfield are seniors Gage McSwain (69-597-8), Nate Henderson (41-269-5) and Shane Parris (4-53-1) and junior Deaken Nodine (3-11).
The group of receivers includes junior Steven Chupp (9-248-4), freshmen Antonio Simpson and Keaundrae Green and sophomore Elijah Barnes, who may also play some tight end. Senior Bryson Jackson returns at tight end.
“Steven is kind of a hybrid guy, too, a lot like Angus,” Ollis said. “He runs the ball well, he catches the ball well, he’s going to be a return guy for us. He’s packed on some muscle, which is good for him, he’s got a little thicker.
“Somebody can’t say, we shut that receiver down, we’ve got them. We’ve got about three more we can trot on the field. You’re going to see us in four wides a lot, and sometimes five. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to throw it.”
How many opportunities all of those skill position players have to shine may depend upon how well the Wolverines’ new-look offensive line gels. Senior Jared Searcy and junior Harrison Waddell are the only returnees with starting experience from last season.
Joining that duo is a group that includes East Henderson transfer Joey Bunch, a 6-3, 335-pound senior who will likely start at center, sophomores Obed Najera and Bryson Owen and senior Kanye Staley, among others.
“People say, coach, we’re not going to be very good up front,” Ollis said. “I’m going to take exception to that. We’ve got two really good guys back in Harrison, who got to play a lot last year because of injuries, and Jared Searcy.
“We don’t have as much depth there as we’ve had in the past. I think last year we had three all-conference offensive linemen out of the five, so that tells you how good we were upfront.”
Weaver finished second on the team last season with 108 tackles and will anchor Polk County’s defense. Henderson will also see time at inside linebacker, with sophomore Mackus Simpson also lining up inside or possibly at strong safety. Barnes will also contribute in those areas.
“Elijah has probably matured physically more than any player I’ve ever seen in a year’s time,” Ollis said. “It’s amazing. He’s almost 6-2, 205. You’d like to walk him off the bus first.”
Chupp and Parris will likely start in the secondary at the corners, with senior Abdias Ramirez helping there as well. Tyler Staley and Chan Barber are expected to see time at free safety.
Jackson will likely start at rush end, with Jacob Knighton lining up at drop end or strong safety. Clint Deyton, last season’s special teams standout, will also play extensively at drop end.
“I thought he was the best special teams player in the conference,” Ollis said of Deyton. “He’s making every tackle on the kickoff, he’s blocking a punt, he’s sprinting down the field to cover a punt. And he plays the same way on defense. Sometimes I tell him, you’ve got to choke your motor some. But I’d rather have to reel them in then push them.”
The defensive front will include many of the same faces from the offensive side as well as freshman Kendall McEntyre, who will see action at nose guard.
“The major thing we tell our defensive linemen is certaintly we’d like to for them to make the play, but if they’re having to get blocked and they’re not getting moved, a linebacker’s going to be able to run,” Ollis said. “Linebackers should have a dozen or more tackles each , every Friday night, if they’re doing the job up front and keeping the lineman off of them, the front is getting it done.”
Senior Matias Akers returns as Polk’s placekicker and will also handle punting duties this season. Parris returns as Polk’s long snapper, and Ollis hopes that experience will be an advantage.
“I feel good about our special teams,” he said. “Particularly early, if you can eliminate mistakes, if you can keep from turning the ball over and you can cover kicks, you’ve got a chance to win early.”
The transition to the pistol, the challenge of a new offensive front and the depth at the skill positions have been Ollis’ focus during the lengthy offseason.
“I think what I’ve done in the offseason, I’ve tried to become a better coach at finding a way to get our playmakers the ball,” he said. “That’s because I knew we were going to have some, and actually, we have a couple more than I thought we were going to have.
“That’s my job as the head coach, to find a way to get those guys that can make plays in space an opportunity to get the ball in space. And certainly, we’re still going to be physical and run up inside and try to own the line of scrimmage to a certain degree.
“I’m one of those guys that that I like to eat the clock up and grind it out some. But if somebody can come in and clear the bases, we’ll take that, too.”