By Kyle LoJacono
The only thing bigger than the expectations around the Gaither football team this season is the transformations to offense and defense.
After making the 2011 Class 7A regional finals with a 9-4 record, the Cowboys lost 24 seniors, including seven key members of its defense, its leading receiver and four starting offense linemen.
Adding to the changes, Gaither shifted its offense twice since the end of last year.
The result is an 8-2 record, consecutive playoff berths and the program’s first district championship since 2007.
“I go into every season knowing there’s going to be change, so I just take it and roll with it,” said second-year Cowboys coach Jason Stokes. “There’s going to be goods and bads, ups and downs, injuries and nice surprises. You just try to stay even keel and portray that to your kids so they find a way to win no matter what.”
The plan during the spring was to become a triple option offense.
“After I saw our personnel when we got it live on grass it just wasn’t working out,” Stokes said. “I did what any coach would do, which was fit our offense to our personnel. … Basically it’s a wing-T base out of a spread look.”
Junior quarterback Alex McGough has thrived in the system. He has completed 99-of-171* passes for 1,541 yards and 20 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
McGough said his stats have come because he has plenty of playmakers to throw the ball to, like wide receiver Marcus Brown (372 yards, five scores) and running backs Shug Oyegunle (468 yards, seven scores), Vu Le (435 yards, six scores) and Josh Bell (115 yards, one score).
“Any of those guys can take it for a touchdown any play,” McGough said. “I just have to get them the ball.”
Add in the power running of 6-foot, 200-pound Jamri Cord (156 yards, one touchdown), and the Cowboys have several ways to attack the opposition.
On defense, Gaither’s new starters have responded by limiting opponents to 15.7 points per game while forcing 21 turnovers and recording 32 sacks.
One of the biggest disruptions for other teams has been senior defensive end Ernest Suttles. The University of Iowa commit has 12 sacks while adding 88 tackles and four forced fumbles.
“The beginning was going to be rough after losing some key players on the line, at linebacker and defensive backs,” Suttles said. “Jeshua Williams (three sacks) has stepped up at defensive end and made a lot of big players. Logan Marshall (80 tackles, five sacks), Jamari Cord (73 tackles, five sacks) and Matt Williams (106 tackles) have been big as returning players at linebacker. We just needed to mesh. Bumpy beginning, but with practice and talking we’ve come to a mutual understanding of what we need to do.”
The defense got some reinforcement to its linebacking core in the form of Dom Neglio. The senior played running back the last two years, but has filled a need at the weakside spot to the tune of 85 tackles.
The secondary returned two starters in juniors Amani Oruwariye (three interceptions) and D.J. King (69 tackles). The unit added in junior Javon Hammond (three interceptions) and senior Danny Bonham (53 tackles) to complete the defense.
The only thing that’s been unchanged from last year is Gaither’s kicking game.
The Cowboys return kicker Dalton Gilson and punter Jared Gremley.
Gilson is Gaither’s all-time scoring leader with 171 points. He has hit four field goals and converted 31 extra points while turning 42 kickoffs into 36 touchbacks.
Gremley is averaging 44 yards per punt with a long of 61 and dropping 11 of his 28 kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
The changes in players and schemes have come with growing pains, but another difference with this year’s squad is welcomed by Stokes.
“These kids believe in themselves,” Stokes said. “They believe they can get it done, and that’s from last year. They saw what they were capable of if they listened to their coaches, show effort and execute. Seeing that Gaither can win, I think that confidence made the difference this year.”
The confidence of winning the Class 7A-District 7 title is also a boost.
“We’re going to take this district championship and let it vault us into the playoffs,” Stokes said. “We now know what it takes to get to the third round, so now the goal is to get that regional championship. … I want these kids to know that these coaches believe in them. I know we can go far.”
The Cowboys host Newsome Nov. 16 for the Class 7A regional quarterfinals. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
*All stats through nine games