By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Walking through the halls, Stillwater High School football coach Tucker Barnard seemed happier than usual — a little too happy.
“In meetings this week, I’ve caught a few giggles and stuff from the kids because they’re laughing at me because I’m so excited (for spring football),” Barnard said.
His players may be laughing at him, but Barnard has every reason to smile as the Pioneers prepare for their first spring practices Monday.
Gone are the days in which Barnard had to keep one eye on the quarterbacks, hoping Braxton Noble or Taggart Brown would show him something to win the starting role. But with Brown moving, the job now belongs to Noble — no questions asked.
“Braxton’s a pretty solid No. 1 for us,” Barnard said. “We felt like he really proved himself to us. Going into the season last year and the first half of the season before he got hurt, we felt really good about it. We’re excited to have him back and we’re excited to have him a year older and another year working with coach (Paul) Hix studying film and talking about technique.
“We’ve got young quarterbacks that obviously will need to get ready in case we’re in a situation like last year where the quarterback goes down. ... It’s certainly comforting to kind of know where your strengths and weaknesses are and not having to try to figure those things out.”
In fact, there’s very little that Barnard said he will be trying to figure out during the spring, allowing him to focus more on the refining the fundamentals of his young squad.
“I think we’re going to be young again,” Barnard said. “We’ve got 14 seniors on the team, so it’s going to be a young group, but we feel like we’ve got a lot of experience. Even as a young team, we’ve got a lot of kids that have played a lot of football last year, so we’re expecting major improvements in a lot of areas.”
Last year, Barnard’s biggest headache daily was the quarterbacks. Now, the biggest concern shifts slightly to the guys in front of Noble.
“I’m most looking forward to seeing what our linemen look like on the offensive and defensive lines,” Barnard said. “I’m most looking forward to that because we’ve got a lot of young guys. There are several guys that played last year at least part of the time, but we think that we can be pretty talented there, so we’re pretty excited about that.”
Barnard’s excitement isn’t just contained to the offensive side of the ball. The defense is full of returning players — including a pair of safeties in King Williams and Brooks Zimmerman, along with linebackers C.J. Citizen and Cameron Mayberry.
Perhaps the biggest question for Barnard will be, who will fill in at corner for graduating seniors Chuck Neal and Davyn Thompson?
“We have to figure something out at corner,” Barnard said. “We have a lot of young and new faces at corner — guys who haven’t played a lot, so there’s going to be some pressure on them to perform. Guys like Logan Anderson and Isiah Johnson — Darius Gradney is a third — those are guys we’ve got to get ready to play.”
Thompson’s vacancy also leaves a big hole in the backfield for the Pioneers. But where Stillwater might struggle to replace the senior on defense, Barnard is confident the Pioneers won’t have that problem on offense in part because of last year’s injuries.
“We think we have several guys who will be able to carry the ball for us,” Barnard said. “I don’t know if they’ll split that role, I’m not sure that’s the right way to phrase it, but we’ve got several guys.
“Ty Smith will be our tailback when we enter the spring. He’s a good-sized kid, he’s a great worker and he played really well for us on junior varsity and he got some playing time at the varsity level later in the season. ... We also had other guys step in at times like King Williams, Cameron Mayberry and Marlon McDonald, so there’s plenty of depth there.”
There’s still a little more than four months until the Pioneers officially kick off the season, but with 37 soon-to-be sophomores joining the spring drills, it’s pretty easy to see why Barnard is so excited not just for this spring but for the future of the Pioneer program.
“It’s kind of like Christmas,” Barnard said. “I’ve used the word exciting several times, but it really is. We’ve been having position meetings and we’ve gone out and walked through some individual type things on the field with our kids — just some little things to try to get ourselves ready for football this week.
“We’re certainly excited. It’s been a long time. We didn’t make the playoffs, took an early exit and it sort of left a bad taste in our mouths. We’re ready to get back out, start working and start getting better for next year.”