Cougars trying to bounce backBy JOSHUA CAMPBELL,
For the first time in head coach Randy Butler’s three-year tenure, the Columbia Academy senior Cougars finished with a losing record in 2018 and are looking to get back to winning playoff games.
Butler said consistency is the key and that the emphasis from the get go has been about takeaways and giveaways. The Cougars’ record in Butler’s three seasons has been directly tied to CA’s turnover margin. In 2016 they were plus-23 and went 9-3; they were plus-5 and went 7-6 in 2017; and they were minus-7 and went 3-8 last year.
“You can trace that most of the time to winning and losing,” he said. “We’ve really stressed to our offensive kids ball security. Then defensively we’ve emphasized taking the ball away. That’s not going to solve all of our problems, but that will solve a lot of them.”
Butler said improving the turnover margin is all about doing the little things right from players knowing their assignments, receivers watching the ball all the way in and defensive backs keeping their eyes out of the backfield among other things.
“When they start doing those little things, big things will happen,” he said. “It not only starts in the weight room and the practice field, but it starts in the classroom and how they live their life when they’re away from here. If you’re inconsistent in your social life, your spiritual life and your academic life, you’re going to be inconsistent in your athletic life. That’s the way it is.”
“We can’t have as many turnovers,” Riles Stuart said. “We have to secure the ball and take it away on defense.”
The Cougars return Ras Pace for a third year at quarterback, and Butler said his signal caller’s statistical decline last year had a lot to do with the talent the Cougars have lost over the years. Pace tossed 30 touchdowns and just eight interceptions as a sophomore in 2017 but regressed to only 12 touchdowns against 13 picks last season.
Butler said it was about replacing good players with inexperienced ones and running a new offensive system under offensive coordinator Graham Roberts.
Butler added he feels better going into the year with their personnel and that it’s evident in practice the Cougars are more athletic and faster than last season.
“When you’re a little bit better athletically, that always helps,” he said. “You look at Robert (Johnson) and Riles (Stuart), and they’ve caught a bunch of balls and Riles has carried the football a lot. This will be Ras’ third year to start, and I expect great things out of him.”
Stuart will lead a running back by committee in the backfield and will be complemented by Kris Ginn, Preston Sauls and potentially Patrick Gill. At receiver Johnson and Peyton Rowell are returning, and Trevor Courtney and some young guys will contribute as well.
Johnson earned a starting job early last season and quickly became the top receiver for the Cougars, leading the squad with 44 receptions for 546 yards and two touchdowns.
Up front the Cougars have five seniors on the offensive line, four of which are returning starters. Jacob Bain, Cole Rowell, Colby Thompson and Daniel Herrera are all back and will be joined by Hunter Courtney.
“(Courtney) has probably done as much with his body since the spring and summer as anybody,” Butler said. “He played some H-back and tight end last year, and we’ve put him on the offensive line. Having five seniors can’t do anything but help. They’ve played a lot of football and are a little bit more mature.”
Hunter Courtney has grown an inch and added 30 pounds since last season and is up to 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds.
The Cougars lost the majority of their defensive line and have had to move their middle linebacker, Cole Rowell, to the line. Rowell had 145 tackles last season, and Butler said Rowell was all for switching positions to help the team. Clay Mikell, Dylan Elkins and Herrera will anchor the inside of the line, with Rowell and Hunter Courtney on the outside.
“We just have to bust them in the mouth and be there when the offense can’t click,” Rowell said.
Columbia Academy will operate out of a 4-2-5 base and can get away with only having six in the box because of the presence of Gill and Ginn at linebacker.
“You’re looking at two guys who made an astronomical amount of tackles last year,” Butler said. “That’s the position defensively for us where if we get the thing stopped up in the middle and it bounces out, you have two of your better defensive players out there that can run and love to hit. That’s a good thing.”
In the secondary Trevor Courtney returns at one corner, and sophomore Ansley Baughman will man the other. Peyton Rowell returns at safety, and a freshman newcomer, Eli Beard, will take over for Johnson as the opposite safety. Butler said Johnson wasn’t demoted but that he’s so valuable to the offense that they don’t want to overwork him. He added that Beard can really run, and his emergence has been a pleasant addition.
MAIS restructured its classifications for this season with Columbia Academy making the jump from Class 3A to 4A, but its district opponents remain the same.
Columbia Academy had anticipated adding Ben’s Ford to the district, but it had to drop down to 8-man football because it lost too many players. So the Cougars will remain in only a three-team district with Wayne Academy and Bowling Green.
The Cougars finished second in the district last season after falling to Bowling Green 32-26 in the season finale a week after beating Wayne Academy 20-6.
CA’s players don’t just have their sights set on winning the district, though. They have state championship aspirations.
Pace said it starts with the seniors, and if they can lead by example and be consistent in practice it will show on the scoreboard each week.
“We can’t take reps off in practice and take plays off. If you do that you’re going to do that in the game,” he said. “I think we can go all the way. There’s new divisions this year, and some of the top teams have moved up. It’s a little bit more open. I think we’re going to be a lot better this year. We have the chance, but it’s not just going to come. We have to go out there, and we have to take it.”
Gill added that they all need to work on their fundamentals and making sure they’re doing what’s best for the team.
“If we’re not all focused on a state championship, then it’s not going to work out. If we all come together and have the same will and drive to get what we want, then we’re going to accomplish it no matter what,” he said.
Pictured Above: The senior trio of, from left, Patrick Gill, Ras Pace and Riles Stuart are set to lead the Cougars into the season. | Photo by Joshua Campbell