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When Dave Miller arrived fifteen months ago the Covington Buccaneers had an uncertain future due to the graduation of a very talented class and an unexpected end to a successful coaching tenure of Kevin Finfrock.
But Miller had a vision of building a program founded on the basic principles of what football is all about - effort, intensity, commitment, preparation and most importantly "the team".
“We talk about those things all the time,” said Miller. “The team concept is something we really focus on. If we want to get to the elite level we have to do it as a team.”
Somehow, he was able to sell this vision to the kids - kids who have grown up in a day where individual achievements are praised and marketed through the likes of ESPN, Fantasy Football, Play Station and Nintendo.
“The kids have bought into the team concept and it’s been a relatively easy sell because of the type of kids we have here in Covington,” Miller explained. “I know it’s tough sometimes because of how our society is today with all the individuality and me type of attitudes. But these kids have bought into the team concept because they’ve seen some results.”
The results have been an impressive unbeaten regular season and a playoff win a year ago, as well as increased numbers in each grade from the junior class down to the pee wee program. The junior high team fields over 50 kids, while the pee wee program has increased to nearly 60 kids.
“When I came here I wanted to make a concerted effort to make the younger kids feel a part of Covington football and the tradition here,” Miller said. “I think we’ve accomplished some of that in a short period of time. We have some great guys working with the pee wee group and at the junior high level and it’s paid off. We had over 140 kids on the practice field at the same time, which is pretty impressive for a town the size of Covington.”
The only drop in numbers came in the senior class where it dropped from an already small number of six to five. But three of the five seniors are three-year starters (Chris Long, Andy Sparks and Logan Woloch) and the other two seniors (Cody Swabb and Quentin Layman) return as letterman.
Combine that with six returning letterman in the junior class and another in the sophomore class, the Buccs may be young, but have plenty of experience.
“We are young, but we have a lot of game experience,” said Miller. “Even the kids who didn’t letter last year gained some valuable game experience on Friday nights and at the junior varsity level. That experience gives the kids who will be stepping into starting roles an added edge of confidence.”
The offensive and defensive lines will be the keys to Covington's success and the Buccs have the potential to be tough in the trenches, even though they lost Jake Wise and an all-state performer in JJ Thompson.
The offensive line returns juniors Adam Craft, Teddy Hale and Ben Christian, along with sophomore Josh Boehringer and senior Cody Swabb. Junior Jordy Meyer is also an extra blocker from his tight end position.
“The offensive line is one place you want to have experience,” Miller said. “We have four guys on the line that had significant roles last year and Jordy is solid on the edge and can move out to receiver.”
Throw in up-and-coming sophomore Joe Evans and some talented freshman lineman, the Buccs are building a unit with more depth than in the past.
“We moved Joe from fullback to guard because we felt he could help solidify our line rotation,” explained Miller. “He worked his butt off all summer and earned that opportunity. He did a good job for us at fullback, but we tried him at guard in practice and he dominated. It was obvious to us that he could fit right in to our rotation as we like to keep fresh kids on the line.”
On the defensive line Covington returns three players who had a knack for making big plays in juniors Teddy Hale and Jordy Meyer, along with sophomore Josh Boehringer. Hale led the team in sacks a year ago and Boehringer was second on the team in tackles - an amazing accomplishment for a freshman.
“We’re pretty athletic at the ends with Jordy and Teddy,” said Miller. “We did lose Logan Hall and Jake Wise inside, but Boehringer had a big year as a freshman and will only get better. We’ll work in Adam Craft, Joe Evans and there are a couple of freshman who are in the mix.”
Covington's biggest graduation hit came at the skill positions, but the Buccs are confident they have the athletes to reload.
Three of those athletes are seniors. Logan Woloch and Chris "Cookie" Long return as jack of all trades, while Andy Sparks makes the move from wide receiver to split time with junior Garrett Clark at fullback. Also in the mix in the backfield will be junior Jeff Zimmerman and sophomore Corey Ely.
“We feel really good about our backs,” Miller stated. “Basically we rotated Cookie and Logan last year and Garrett gained some valuable experience at fullback. Andy can play fullback or we can use him at wide receiver or even at tight end. He’s pretty flexible. Zimmerman and Ely both gained experience last season at the JV level and they have high expectations of themselves. We have a number of guys who can contribute in the backfield.”
Taking over the controls under center for the departed Bill Dickey is sophomore Jake Bitner. Dickey, who threw for 1,126 yards and rushed for 771 yards a year ago, left big shoes to fill, as he was masterful in managing the offense.
But those questioning whether Bitner is up to the task must remember Dickey took over for Gene Studebaker and had to learn a new offense on top of it. Bitner, on the other hand, has been groomed an entire season for this opportunity.
“I see a lot of similarities with Jake and Bill as far as competitiveness and their attitudes,” said Miller. “Bitner is a very coachable kid and has a great work ethic. I’m confident Jake will do a fine job at quarterback.”
Backing up Bitner will be Chris Long and sophomore Jake Stewart.
“It’s good to have three quarterbacks you can trust in running the offense,” Miller continued. “Bill got banged up in the playoff game last year and we didn’t miss a beat when we brought Cookie (Chris Long) in. Jake (Stewart) is coming on and he is getting more comfortable with the offense as well. I have no reservations about the quarterback position.”
For Bitner and the other quarterbacks to have success, his receiving targets must help him out on the other end of the play. The Buccs had critical dropped passes late in the season - particularly in the playoffs against Portsmouth Notre Dame and Lehman.
The Buccs are still searching for players to step into receiving rolls with several players in contention, including senior Quentin Layman, junior Taylor Reames and sophomores Corey Haines and Ben Wilson. Wilson is also flexible enough to play in the backfield.
“We have a number of guys who can contribute as receivers, not only catching the ball but blocking as well,” Miller explained. “Jordy (Meyer), Andy (Sparks), Logan (Woloch) and Quentin all have a good bit of experience there. Taylor Reames is a new comer, but he’s worked hard. Corey Haines is right there as well. We have an army of guys fighting for spots, not only on varsity, but at the reserve level too.”
If Covington's offense can control the clock and put points on the board, opponents are in for some tough evenings as the defense appears to be solid once again.
Backing up the imposing defensive front previously mentioned, the Buccs have shuffled things around at linebacker and in the secondary.
Senior Andy Sparks moves from defensive back to join Ben Christian, Garrett Clark and Corey Ely as part of a solid unit of linebackers.
“We moved Andy over to fill in for the loss of (Jordy) Burelison,” said Miller. “He loves to hit and he’ll mesh with Ben pretty nicely. Garrett and Corey both can come in and give us some quality depth there. Then we have two new guys with wrestling backgrounds in Aaron Devenport and Josh McMillion who will be pushing for time. We have some depth at linebacker.”
The move of Sparks opened up competition in the secondary with Logan Woloch and Chris Long returning to provide experience. Quentin Layman, junior Jeff Zimmerman and sophomores Jake Stewart and Jake Bitner give the Buccs plenty of options.
“We’ll be young at certain positions in the secondary,” said Miller. “Logan and Cookie return, but we have two positions we’re still not settled on. Corey Haines, Jake Stewart and Jake Bitner are in the mix although we’d prefer not to play our quarterback on defense. Jeff Zimmerman has come on as of late and may lock down the position at monster.”
The Buccaneer special teams should be solid once again as the majority of the returning players have experience. Finding a consistent kicker to replace Brock Iddings will be a priority in the final weeks before the season starts.
“Jordy (Meyer), Logan (Woloch) and Ben (Christian) are all three in the hunt for the kicking duties,” said Miller. “Boehringer will continue with the punting duties, but there are a lot of opportunities with our return teams. We had some young players come in late in the year last season and make an impact and hopefully we can see some more players seize the opportunities again this year.”
One of the pleasant surprises for the Buccs has been the fourteen kids from the freshman class.
“I’m very excited about the freshman class,” Miller said. “That group can be a special group over the next four years. They all have worked very hard in the weight room and do everything we ask of them. If they keep working the way they have and continue to improve, we’ll see some great things from those kids. I’m very excited about them.”
With the talent he has on a fairly young roster, Miller is excited about the upcoming season and appreciates the high expectations the community has for his Buccs.
“High expectations don’t bother me and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “That’s a sign of a good program. We have high expectations of ourselves and we’re working to get there.”
But Miller and the Buccs aren’t about to look ahead as they are firm believers in taking it one day at a time and sticking to the “TEAM” philosophy.
“It's wins football games and championships,” Miller said in regards to playing as a team. “Coldwater is a perfect example. They didn’t have more individual talent than a lot of the teams they played last year, but they played very well as a team. They played 100 miles-per-hour for an entire four quarters and beat a more talented Mooney team in the state championship game. That’s the level we’re trying to get too.”
With the hard work and increased participation, the Buccs are on the right track.