By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Two days ago, Stillwater High School defensive lineman Cyntrell Carden kneeled on the sideline looking like he had just gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson, not the young Pioneer offensive line.
Wednesday, Carden was the one delivering the blows as he and the defensive line repeatedly blew up plays in the offensive backfield.
“I was very unimpressed with us on Monday and I was not a whole lot more impressed with us on Tuesday,” Stillwater defensive coordinator Jeremy Hughes said. “We adjusted a few things — just small things like our stance and our basic things. Then I just kind of lit a fire under them. I told them it has to be a fight every day. It’s got to be a battle on the field every day with the offensive line, and it’s a battle we have to win every day.”
Winning that battle is easier said than done, however. The Pioneers have little to no experience up front and are a little on the light side when it comes to size.
“It does (concern us), but you’ve got what you’ve got,” Stillwater coach Tucker Barnard said. “We’re just going to go out and play with what we have. The coaches are doing a good job of coaching kids up and getting them ready. We’re doing the best we can, but we’re not complaining about our size or experience. We’re young and these kids are going to keep growing and next year we’ll be bigger.”
It isn’t just the size and lack of experience that’s a major concern for the Pioneers as they go through spring drills. It’s also filling the gaps left behind by two straight years of defensive line dominance.
“It’s their turn to come in and play,” Barnard said. “That’s what everybody wants. They’re on the football team because they want to play. For some of them, their turn is coming a little earlier than what we would like. We’d really like to get those guys another year before they had to play, but they’re going to have to come in and play right now. The pressure is on and we’ll see how they react.”
“We’ve had two previous classes of guys that could really play up front,” Hughes said. “They’re filling some pretty big shoes, but I think they’re excited about that opportunity. The guys I have are guys that are going to work hard, do what I want them to do and they get excited about playing defense, so that’s a plus for us.”
As if filling the shoes of giants like Garrett McBroom, Jonah Motley, Paul Wilson and Garrett Davenport wasn’t a big enough challenge, the defensive line has also been asked to do something different this season — play with only three linemen on the field.
The Pioneers are transitioning from the standard 4-3 defense to a 3-4 base defense, hoping it fits Stillwater’s personnel and limits the damage caused by the pass-happy high school offenses.
“It’s kind of hard for us because it’s a very big disadvantage for us,” Carden said. “It’s five against three, but we still have to work with it because we’ve got our blitz, where we’re coming down with an extra guy and it will probably throw (the offenses) off a little bit.”
“They’ve handled it pretty well,” Hughes said. “We’re traditionally a 4-3, but the last two years we’ve run some 3 front. We ran it against Owasso a couple years ago and we’ve tinkered with it some here and there. This year, we’ve just transitioned over to that as our base and we’re just building off of that.”
At times this first week, that learning curve has been rather steep — even for the coaches. But like most things, sometimes it just takes time.
“We’re playing different techniques, so there’s a little bit of a learning curve there,” Barnard said. “The first day, it was really bad. The second day wasn’t a whole lot better, but (Wednesday) they’re beginning to figure things out a little bit and that’s helped them.”
As they start to figure things out, that success only seems to breed more confidence, especially for players like Carden, who seemed to be stretched thin between learning the new defense and teaching the incoming sophomores.
“It probably helps us work harder and motivates us a lot more to do our best,” Carden said. “It gives us more confidence when we get back there, get through the line and make more plays in the backfield.”
Learning so many things this spring will undoubtedly cause growing pains throughout the summer. But with two more years left to work with the most senior of the group, it’s pretty easy to see why Hughes is giddy about the future of Stillwater’s defensive line.
“It really lets you mold them,” Hughes said. “I’ve only got about nine guys in my group and I have about an hour or more with them in individual drills every day. It’s going to allow us to work technique over and over and over, until it’s just a reaction. We’re not limited on time. We’ve got a lot of time with those guys, and now I’ve got them for this whole year and next year so we’ll do nothing but get a lot better from now until they graduate. I expect some big things out of those guys.”