For the past two years, Chuck Neal and Davyn Thompson have been staples in the Stillwater High School football team’s secondary — baiting quarterbacks and delivering punishing blows to any receiver that crosses their path.
So it would be easy to see why Stillwater coach Tucker Barnard might be a little distraught at losing a pair of key cogs in the Stillwater defense.
But as the Pioneers wrapped up spring practices Tuesday at Pioneer Stadium, Neal and Thompson almost seemed like a distant memory. That’s how excited Barnard is about the new faces that will be filling those holes.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Barnard said. “They’re a good group of kids. They work hard and I’ve been really proud of the way their coming along right now.”
“I think they’re doing good. We’re focusing on our footwork and our exits into different coverages. They’re getting comfortable and the more comfortable they get the better off they’ll be.”
It may be impossible to fill the roles of Neal and Thompson, two players who seemingly meant everything to the Pioneer defense. But if there’s one thing that can make a coach forget about what he’s lost, it’s a wealth of talent.
From the experienced players like King Williams and Brooks Zimmerman to players just learning the position like Isaiah Johnson and Logan Anderson, there’s no shortage of ability to make plays. The biggest trick is getting the timing down.
“We’re a lot quicker and younger,” Williams said. “We just have more energy. It helps us a lot because we’re able to do a lot more coverages and since we’re so fast, we can fly to the ball and knock them down or get picks.”
It’s been a process this spring for Barnard and his staff. With so many new faces, it can be frustrating at times. But after nearly two weeks the secondary that came into the spring looks nothing like the secondary that’s coming out of it.
“We’ve put in a lot,” Barnard said. “We started staying really very vanilla for about the first three or four days, getting our base coverages. ... We’ve thrown a lot at them and they’ve picked it up well. We definitely haven’t mastered it yet, but we’re getting better every day and certainly getting better with their understanding of their responsibilities. It’s certainly been fun to see them develop and get better.”
It may not be obvious to the untrained eye just yet as the corners still do struggle from time to time, but things are slowly starting to click mentally.
“You’ve got to have athleticism, there’s no doubt about that, but then you’ve got to be able to process it,” Barnard said. “That’s something that I’ve been really pleased with is their smarts. Right now, they’re doing a pretty good job of processing coverage responsibilities and they’re able to react on a ball.”
A key in that reaction? Not something the coaches necessarily taught. Instead it’s something that came from Williams.
“The way we backpedal is different,” Williams said. “I backpedal differently than what coach Barnard teaches. They like the way I backpedal better and I’m able to help them get off the ball the way I do.”
Williams and Zimmerman’s experience allows them to be almost like the quarterbacks of the defense as they instruct younger players where to go. But with a trip to Mustang for a team camp beginning Wednesday, the Pioneers are about to see just how much they’ve improved over the last two weeks.
“That will be quite a test,” Barnard said. “I love team camps for that reason. It will really be a test to go in and not have any idea what somebody’s going to do — what formations they’re going to be lining up in, what kind of plays they’re going to be running. You just have to go out and execute your coverages.
“It will be a challenge for them. It always seems like it moves really fast for the defense. ... There will be a lot of pressure on them to think fast and react.”