Bret Harte didn’t find much success on the gridiron last year, but that had more to do with execution and the Bullfrogs instability at the most important position on the football team.
Jesse Jones / Union Democrat Bret Harte senior running back Logan Lowe charges upfield on a carry during practice last week. JESSE JONES / UNION DEMOCRAT
The Bullfrogs started two quarterbacks and were never able to find an established signal-caller until late in the year.
Jake Bailey took over the reins at quarterback after a player quit mid-season in 2013, and showed promise, but he graduated this summer.
Head coach Jon Byrnes, who is entering his second year, will be hand over the keys to the Bullfrog offense to Michael Ziehlke, a 6-foot-4, 165-pound junior.
Ziehlke has shown strong potential, which has Byrnes believing the junior is the right man for the job.
“He has a really good head on his shoulders,” Byrnes said. “He ran the JV offense last year. He understands the game. He’s a competitor, and he understands what we’re trying to do, more so than anybody else on the team.”
The Bullfrogs scored only 93 points last year, and recorded 12 or more in just three games.
With the team struggling to find the end zone — Bret Harte registered seven points or less in seven matches in 2013 — Byrnes and his coaching staff installed a new playbook in the offseason to help give the Bullfrogs a spark.
Gone is the pro-style, split-back formations.
In is the Pistol attack, made infamous by former Nevada Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault and current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
In the Pistol formation, the quarterback is lined up closer to the center — three yards, instead of the usual five — and the running back is split directly behind the signal-caller.
“We think the scheme is to our advantage to our type of players,” Byrnes said. “With our size, we can — just by scheme alone — it gives us an advantage over other teams. We realized we just can’t go heads up with anybody anymore. We just can’t do it. We’re not big enough, strong enough. So, we’re going a different route with that.”
Last season, the Bullfrogs were a run-first team who pounded at defenders, but weren’t much of a threat to throw the ball.
But that should change this season.
With the Pistol, Byrnes noted this formation may give Bret Harte a better opportunity to exploit a defense with its passing game.
It also helps that the Bullfrogs have settled on Ziehlke at quarterback.
The flow of the offense will be dictated by the play of Ziehlke and a trio of returning senior running backs: Eric Diep, Logan Lowe and Austin Miguel.
“He has to be able to see things and he has to be able to check out of things,” Byrnes said of Ziehlke. “If he sees one thing here and it doesn’t look good, he has to have the ability to check out of it and go the other way or run a different play, and Michael Ziehlke has that. He just has to accept that responsibility and I think he will.”
The strength of the Bullfrogs offense is in the backfield. Lowe is a returning three-year starter and Diep and Miguel have valuable varsity experience.
Lowe, a 5-foot-10, 165-pounder, led Bret Harte in rushing last season with more than 400 yards and six touchdowns, and Diep and Miguel combined for 309 yards and three TDs.
“Those guys are looking like they might get some of the carries,” Byrnes said.
At wide receiver, 6-foot, 160-pound Matt Gurich returns to fill in one spot and junior Joey Bailey should start at the other.
Byrnes pulled up underclassman Colin Preston last week to help push competition on the offensive line, but he is proving in practices he can already handle the jump to varsity.
“He’s a sophomore, but we brought him up,” Byrnes said. “We think he can do it.”
Matt Oswald, a 5-foot-9, 240-pound senior, also brings a wealth of experience to the trenches after starring alongside 2014 Bret Harte grad Jared Taylor last season. Taylor is currently a freshman for the University of Mary Division II football program in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Competition battles, including the offensive line, are still ongoing.
“We’re young,” Byrnes said. “We’re really young.”
Bret Harte surrendered 36 points a game in 2013, and gave up 40 or more five times.
That is one of the reasons why Byrnes and defensive coordinator Eli Dufloth are switching things up defensively this season.
The 4-3 defensive scheme has been tossed, and coaches installed multiple 3-4 formations to complement the athleticism and talent of its players.
“A lot of the coaches have experience with it,” Dufloth said of the 3-4. “We did it for the flexibility. We used to run the 4-3 because — at the time — we had those players that were kind of your prototypical defensive ends. We didn’t have any big and agile guys that can play that position anymore, so the 3-4 for us is something that we’re familiar with. It offers us the flexibility, and so far, it’s paying off.”
The anchor of the Bret Harte defense will be its solid linebacking corps.
Lowe returns to his middle linebacker position, where he earned first-team 2013 All-Mother Lode League honors, as a junior.
He also led the team with 102 tackles last season.
“He knows what’s going on,” Dufloth said. “He has plenty of experience and is an extremely hard worker on defense, so he’ll get those tackles.”
On the edges are Diep and Miguel. Both combined for 51 stops as juniors.
Diep, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound second-team All-MLL selection in 2013, relies on his athleticism and work ethic to make plays, which is a plus for Bret Harte.
“That’s his strength,” Byrnes said. “Not real verbal. He leads by example, which is good, we need that.”
A wild card who may push Diep and Miguel for playing time is Preston, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound sophomore.
“So far he’s doing a fantastic job playing outside linebacker as well,” Dufloth said of Preston. “He’s just a big guy that’s fitting in really well with the scheme.”
Bailey Huse, Dalton Kaua, Ryan Plunkett and Brock Rizzo are in competition for the final linebacker position.
Another player who should find some time is Levi Rollings. The senior 5-foot-10, 185-pounder, who Dufloth stated has a great motor, shifted to linebacker from the defensive line.
“At inside linebacker, we have more depth than we’ve had in the past, but we also have some inexperience,” Dufloth said. “But the inexperience isn’t that bad.”
On the defensive line, Bret Harte has the beef up front to be able to clog the holes.
Seniors Gus Brown, a 6-foot-4, 265-pounder, and Logan Turner, a 6-foot-3, 270-pounder, are projected to start at two positions with junior 5-foot-9, 260-pound Jordan Porras lining up at the other.
“We got some size on the line this year, which is nice,” Dufloth said. “We got some big size. The idea right there is to really tighten things inside and shut down the gaps.”
Senior Kyle Kraft, who is 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, may not possess ideal size in a three-man front, but his wrestling background gives him an edge.
“We got good speed, good pad level, good strength from a kid name Kyle Kraft,” Dufloth said. “He’s kind of a tweener, a lineman/linebacker type. He likes to get down and low on the line.”
One question mark surrounding the Bret Harte defense is the secondary.
The Bullfrogs graduated every starter from last year’s squad, but is being led by Gurich.
“Right now, we have a lot of turnout from Matt Gurich,” Dufloth said. “Over the summer, the guy was completely committed to the program. He showed up to every practice, every weight room (session). He’s looking very good there, and the rest of the guys there are pretty young.”
Bret Harte opens its season Friday against Sierra Ridge Academy at Dorroh Field before embarking on a two-week road trip to Orestimba (Sept. 5) in Newman and Escalon (Sept. 12).
The Bullfrogs return home to host back-to-back games against Livermore Valley (Sept. 9) and Calaveras (Sept. 26).
The cross-county clash with Calaveras is usually played at the end of the season, but with Sonora entering the MLL, the league schedule was changed.
Bret Harte hits the road to Tuolumne to face Summerville (Oct. 3) and the Bullfrogs host Linden (Oct. 10) for homecoming.
The Bullfrogs play Amador (Oct. 17) and will have a bye the following week.
On Halloween, Bret Harte hosts new league-member Sonora.
The Bullfrogs wrap up their 2014 season against Argonaut (Nov. 7) in Jackson.