The Flintridge Prep football team can't take the next step forward without taking a few chances.
That would seem to be the rationale of Coach Antonio Harrison as he begins to put his stamp on the program in the first season of his head coaching tenure by trying to push the envelope a bit more on both sides of the ball.
On the surface, Harrison, who served as an assistant under Perry Skaggs last season, won't be drastically altering either the traditional Wing-T offense that the Rebels have long favored or their basic 4-4 defensive scheme. But he strongly believes that being too conservative on defense and not varied enough in its offensive playbook was a big factor in Prep's 3-6 finish and failure to make the CIF playoffs with a 2-3 mark in the Prep League a year ago.
"The biggest difference is we're not going to be a conservative defense anymore," said Harrison, whose team, which is ranked eighth in the CIF Southern Section Northeast Division, opens its season with a nonleague game at St. Genevieve at 7 p.m. on Saturday. "We're going to blitz the hell out of everybody, we're going to get after the quarterbacks and we're going to be nasty and aggressive.
"This past summer with the new system and new program, we were averaging 25 guys to every passing-league practice and game. Now that we're stepping into [preseason] learning the plays, we don't have to take as much time teaching. Everything's flowing right in and we're just taking care of the little things on the field, so it's looking really good."
In addition to changing the defensive mindset, Harrison's other prime offseason objective was to spice up the offense by going to a modified shotgun version of the Wing-T in attempt to better utilize the Rebels' best athletes.
The signal-caller leading the offense may vary from game to game and just as likely from play to play, as one of the only positions at which Harrison is yet to name a definite starter is quarterback.
Seniors Jordan Whaley and Kyle McDonald have competed for the job all summer. Harrison said both have performed well enough with the first and second teams in practice for the Rebels to enter the season with a two-quarterback system that will persist through the early weeks of the season and possibly indefinitely for as long as it continues to work for the team.
"They're neck and neck," Harrison said of Whaley and McDonald. "I had one them come and ask me the other day, 'Who do you think is going to be playing,' and I honestly didn't have an answer for him. We're going to have to wait and see their gameplay and let them battle it out during nonleague competition to let the stats and the effort speak for itself on who's going to start."
With a roster numbering just 24 players, Prep will once again rely on the versatility and durability of a core of two-way players.
In addition to playing quarterback, Whaley, who played H-back last year, will also start on defense at linebacker
Senior Eric Kazangian will also be a pivotal figure at wing back and linebacker.
"The changes really aren't that much different," Kazangian said. "The defense is exactly the same and the offense is pretty much the same with a few new pass plays, so there's really not that much to learn."
On offense, the Rebels' backfield will feature a timeshare of senior Jacob Steenwyck and junior Chris Wirthlin at H-back.
Up front, the offensive line consists of junior center Charlie Ayers, senior tackles Jordy Manker and Sam Cook and sophomore guard Ryan Leslie with competition still open for the other guard spot.
"I have a ton of confidence [in the offensive line]," Harrison said. "They're a crucial part to our offense and they know it."
Harrison said Prep has more skill and depth at the receiver position than in previous years with junior tight end Daniel Jung, senior X-back David Russell and junior Z-back Kory Hamane all expected to fill large pass-catching roles as the Rebels look to put the ball in the air more than they did last season.
"For the past couple years, we haven't had that many receivers," Russell said. "This year I think we have five very quality receivers. [We've got] a lot of height, a lot of speed and a lot of agility, so that should be good.
"Coach Harrison's addition to this offense — adding a new passing element — is going to be huge. It plays more to our strengths."
Senior Jared Norsworthy and junior Steven Fleming are also in the mix for the passing game and Alex Holden will handle kicking duties.
"Coach Harrison has looked at our team and seen that we have lot more speed, so he's adapted more of a pass offense and that's really utilized the skill on our team," Leslie said. "On the line, it's very similar, we have a veteran line coach so I feel like we're going to have a very successful season."
Defensively, the Rebels will be changing up their 4-4 formation by stacking the linebackers and bringing pressure on just about every play.
"The big philosophy with conservative was you don't want to send too many people and leave gaps open, but as everybody saw last year, even though we were conservative, gaps were still open and we were still getting beat," Harrison said. "I don't want to have these guys back on their heels, I want them to put everybody else back on their heels."
Joining Whaley and Kazangian in the linebacking corps will be Leslie and junior Lucas Kim, while the defensive line will be anchored by Manker and Cook.
"[Coach Harrison] has been drilling us hard, but we're getting all the minor details down and that's going to bring the big picture together in the end," Leslie said.
McDonald and Russell will play safety and the corners will be manned by Hamane, Wirthlin and Steenwyck.
"I think we're going to be a lot more aggressive than we were last year with the blitzing packages and what not," Whaley said. "We're trying to keep it simple, but still effective and another thing we're really emphasizing is our tackling, just fundamentally sound football because that's what we lacked last year."
The Rebels play a four-game nonleague slate concluding with a home game against Malibu on Oct. 1 before beginning league play by hosting Chadwick on Oct. 15 and then welcoming defending champion Rio Hondo Prep on Oct. 23. Archrival Pasadena Poly hosts Prep on Oct. 29.
"Those are the teams to beat," Harrison said of the trio of league rivals, all of whom are ranked above Prep in the Northeast Division. "All of the teams [in league] we need to beat, but those are the top tier. You want to be a championship team, you've gotta beat those three teams and we're going to come after them."