Coming off one of the worst seasons in program history, which included just one win and the unprecedented cancellation of two games due to an insufficient number of players, the Flintridge Prep football team needed to make some changes.
First and foremost, the Rebels needed more players, and through a concerted effort to recruit on campus, their numbers have grown to 23, up from last year's 18. Fifteen are seniors.
Beyond that, though, Rebels Coach Antonio Harrison saw the need to make some fundamental alterations at the core of the program in shuffling up his coaching staff and overhauling the team's approach to defense and special teams.
The biggest change may be in the defense, where Harrison has installed himself as coordinator.
"I love defense, I played defense in college and that's where I belong," said Harrison, in his third year at the helm of his alma mater.
The Rebels, who open the season at Army Navy in Carlsbad on Sept. 1, will move from last year's 4-4 scheme to a 3-5 set that Harrison hopes will better utilize his personnel. It was an idea born of experimentation last season when the team tried out a 3-5 against Rio Hondo Prep in the first half and was successful in holding the Prep League-champion Kares to a single score for most of the half.
"With the 3-5, we get a lot more versatility, we can send a lot more pressure and the boys really enjoy it," Harrison said. "I like it with our personnel. We're going to be sending pressure all day."
The new defense is designed to get the most out of the Prep's main strength, its linebacking corps. Senior Dylan Colliflower will anchor the middle along with senior Chadd Cosse, while the weakside outside linebacker is senior Michael Leslie and the weakside inside backer is junior Eric Fung. Senior Stefan Smith will be the last linebacker and will play a hybrid strong safety role, Harrison said.
"We switched defensive mindsets from a 4-4 stack last year to a 3-5 and it's totally unconventional compared to other defenses people have run, but we think it will work really well in our league and in preseason," Colliflower said. "It helps balance plays toward the strengths of our personnel because we have a lot of really talented linebackers, so we want to get as many of them on the field as possible."
Up front will be senior nose tackle West Nowotny, senior end Tucker Chemel and senior anchor Cory Witter, while the secondary will consist of senior Kurt Kozacik and junior Kyle Law at the corners and senior Kyle Hamane at safety.
"We're going to let him sit back, see the whole field and make athletic plays," Harrison said of Hamane.
On special teams, Harrison promises even more unconventional play calling.
"Everybody should take a look at our special team, it's going to be interesting," Harrison said. "We're going to be very creative. Don't expect a lot of punting or a lot of punt return. Expect a unique kickoff return, expect a lot of onside kicks. We're going to put our boys in some positions for 50-50 balls for turnovers and we're going to get our boys some rest. We're a small school with small numbers, so we've got to think creatively."
About the only thing recognizable will be the wing-T offense that veteran offensive coordinator Glen Beattie, who returns after a season away, will run.
Senior quarterback Clayton Weirick will do plenty of handing off to the running back tandem of Smith and Kozacik.
"They're a great 1-2 punch," Harrison said. "Stefan is a little more finesse and Kurt's a little
more power, but they both have great quickness and they both have great moves. We expect to be able to interchange them both at fullback and halfback, so I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of touchdowns."
To whatever extent the passing game does figure into the offense, it will be enhanced by the addition of big receivers Leslie (6-4) and senior Kareem Ismail (6-6).
"We've got two large targets," Harrison said. "They both have great hands and good speed, so
when we get in that red zone, I don't see why we shouldn't score."
The strength of the offense will no doubt be the veteran offensive line, though, which features returners Witter at center, Chemel at guard and Nowotny at tackle bolstered by sophomore tackle Cameron Wen and junior guard Brian Heintz.
"I definitely would say the line is going to be a strength," Nowotny said. "We've got four senior returners and some young guys stepping up to fill the other couple of spots.
"A couple of us will have to go both ways, but we will be well enough conditioned that it shouldn't be too much of an issue."
Prep will continue nonleague play until opening the Prep League schedule against Chadwick at La Canada High on Oct. 6. By then, the Rebels should have a much better idea of how effective the offseason changes were.
"We're cautiously optimistic," Harrison said. "We know we have a great group – we have strong starters and some great backups – but even though our numbers are higher, they're still low compared to most programs, so if we can stay healthy we're going to compete with everybody and I expect some really close games with us coming out on top in most of them."