by nathan oster
The Greybull Buffs who take the field on Friday night in Basin won’t bear much of a resemblance to the team that lost to Thermopolis in its 2011 season finale, which not only capped the careers of 14 seniors but also signaled the end of the coaching tenures of head coach Josh Heinemeyer and two longtime assistants in Jeff Sukut and Jim Prather.
Everywhere you look this fall, there is change.
Justin Bernhardt, who as a prep played for former GHS Coach John Cundall in Nebraska before going on to serve as an assistant at Rocky Mountain College, is the new head coach of the Buffs. His assistant coaches are former Buffs Jeff Hunt, who coached middle school football, and Jared Collingwood.
The team that they inherit has question marks, mainly due to the loss of those 14 seniors.
But as a trio, they like what they are seeing from the kids.
The roster for the first week of practice was in the 20s, but since then it has grown, with several new kids joining the program this week with the start of school. While they won’t be eligible to play in the opener, they should have the required 10 practices under the belts before the season-opener against Big Horn.
“When the dust settles, I think we’ll end up with around 35 kids, which is right around where we thought we’d be,” Bernhardt said. “So far we’ve got 13 practices in, and for throwing three new systems at them — offense, defense and special teams — I feel really good about how they’ve picked stuff up.
“Obviously, with three new systems, we will need to sharpen the knife a little, so to speak. It’s going to take some time until we are all clicking like we should. But that’s to be expected.”
Bernhardt has installed a simplified version of the offense that he ran at Rocky Mountain College. Think fast-break football on offense.
“We’re running the spread, no huddle,” he said. “The kids were able to pick it up quickly and we have the personnel to do it.”
Bernhardt likes the quarterback he has to run that system in Calder Forcella. A sophomore, “Calder hasn’t seen very many reps at quarterback at the varsity level, but he’s got good mechanics and good footwork,” Bernhardt said.
In the backfield, Bernhardt has a bruiser in Rob Nuttall and a speed back in Jesse Chestnut.
“Both of those guys run really hard and come down hill at you,” Bernhardt said. “Yes, we’re going to be in the spread, but we still want to be a run-first team.”
Bernhardt has yet to sort out the wideout position, but recognizes depth will be a key. “The more we can rotate our receivers, the faster we can run our offense,” he said, adding that Luke Zeller, Fabian Davila, Wyatt Nielson and Bryce Wright have emerged as the leaders in the battle for the top wideout positions.
The offensive line, in particular, has been a work in progress, especially after Cody Strauch and Zane Edeler went down with injuries. Both are expected to return to action within a couple of weeks. “We should be in pretty good shape when they do.”
For the opener, the Buffs are expected to deploy Paul Stewart, Aidan Jenness, Oscar Gomez, Logan Jensen and Cache Griffin on the line.
Bernhardt also wants the “high pressure” approach on defense — and the key to that, he said, will be getting pressure on the opposing team’s quarterbacks.
“One of our biggest strengths will be our coverage checks, and some of our different looks which allow our safeties to play in the box against running teams and underneath versus the pass.”
Paul Stewart, who along with fellow end Victor DeCabooter terrorized quarterbacks last season, is back to anchor the line. Nuttall, Chestnut, Strauch, Wright and Jordan Nielson will get most of the reps at linebacker.
By emphasizing rushing the passer, Bernhardt knows that there will be times that his defensive backs find themselves on coverage islands, but he believes Luke Zeller, Forcella, Davila, Wyatt Nielson and Burgos will be to the challenge.
“Teams are going to be throwing a lot our DBs…we know that,” Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt believes that in the first couple of weeks of the season the defense will be ahead of the offense. “We’re going to rely on our defense to carry us until the offense starts to gel, which will hopefully be sooner rather than later.”
Being new, Bernhardt deferred when asked to size up this year’s conference.
“It’s hard for me to get a gauge right now when I watch film on the majority of the schools and don’t have a roster, or know who was a senior last year and who is coming back this year,” Bernhardt said. “Besides there are four new coaches in our conference this year … there will be a lot of different systems than we saw on film.
“From what I have seen, I think we can compete with anyone.”
On Friday night, the Buffs will open against Riverside. Start time is 7:30 in Basin.
It is a Week 0 game, meaning that it won’t count in the standings.
But that won’t matter to the kids, who are steeped in the Greybull-Riverside tradition.
“It’s a big game for us,” Bernhardt said. “For the majority of our kids, this will be their first live reps at the varsity level, their first time seeing those live bullets come down the range, and it’s going to tell us a lot about how far we’ve come during camp and what we need to do to get better the rest of the year.”
Greybull has won the last three annual meetings with Riverside, including last year’s 35-21 trouncing on the Buffs’ home field.