Flintridge Prep football Coach Antonio Harrison feels a lot more comfortable with his team, and vice versa, coming into the 2011 season, now that he's entering his second year at the helm of the program.
"It's a huge difference from last year, the guys know my expectations for them," Harrison said. "We've all gotten used to each other."
The uncertainty that comes with a new coach is all gone now, said Chris Wirthlin, Prep's primary running back and shutdown corner.
"We don't really think of him as a new coach anymore," Wirthlin said. "He is our coach now."
Now that introductions are out of the way, Harrison and the Rebels are intent on returning to the playoffs. Prep went 2-6-1 (2-3 in the Prep League) last year and failed to make the postseason for the second season in a row.
"We have only two goals this year: To get better every day and make the playoffs," Harrison said. "Once we make the playoffs it's anybody's game, anything can happen."
Although Prep's record in 2010 left much to be desired, the team feels confident coming into 2011 with a two-game winning streak after winning its last two games of the season against Viewpoint (35-0) and Webb (35-14) last year.
"We have a two-game winning streak," said Lucas Kim, the team's wingback, middle linebacker and emotional leader. "We aren't coming back from a defeated season. Even though we lost the games before that, we were able to find ourselves and win the last two games."
There weren't too many changes in Harrison's inaugural season. He did expand Prep's offense from a wing-T to a shotgun wing-T attack, but kept the team's 4-4 defense, as he is this year. Now that his team has adapted to the shotgun formation, Harrison's evolving the offense further.
Last year, the Rebels only got a taste of Harrison's offense, running just the basic plays out of their shotgun wing-T and power I-formations. Harrison has brought more passing plays into those packages and added two more folds to the offense this year, a Triple-I and a special two-minute offense where the quarterback can call his own plays from the line.
Clayton Weirick, a junior, will take control of Prep's expanded offense from the quarterback position after leading the team's junior varsity squad last year. Weirick impressed Harrison with his play on JV and solidified himself as the varsity starter after putting in plenty of work over the summer.
"He's taken some big strides and looks really, really good," Harrison said. "We still have a few things to work on — he's worried about throwing interceptions, but he is one of the top quarterbacks we've seen at Prep in a long time."
Weirick isn't getting ahead of himself. For now, he's just focused on effectively leading the offense as it expands.
"It's a big change [coming into varsity]," Weirick said. "It's a lot faster and the guys are a lot bigger. …I will have to get used to it in the first game, but we'll see how it works out."
It won't be a completely new look on offense for the Rebels, though, as Wirthlin is expected to get a bulk of the carries again this year as a senior, one of five on the team.
"I just want to set an example for the younger guys," Wirthlin said. "We don't have many seniors, so I just want to try my hardest every play, do whatever I can and see where that leads me."
Wirthlin accumulated 583 total yards (490 rushing, 93 receiving) and four touchdowns, three of which came on the ground, as a junior. He also had a team-high three interceptions playing cornerback.
"Chris is a ball player and a gamer," Harrison said. "He is a smaller guy, but you put him against someone else and you think he's 6'3". I expect him to play a huge role on both offense and defense, as our top corner."
Harrison hopes to strike a balance on offense between his passing and running plays this year, but he'll go with whatever is working.
"I like to throw the ball and run it," Harrison said. "My only tendency as a coach is to find the one thing I can exploit on the other team and do it until they prove they can stop it."
Harrison may be going to his ground game more this year now that he has some bigger bodies up front on the offensive line, which has Wirthlin excited.
"We have a really good line this year, so I am hoping to capitalize on that," Wirthlin said. "I am always aiming to get more yards and hopefully get in the end zone more this year."
Josh Kim and Chadd Cosse return to anchor both of the Rebels' lines. Kim and Cosse will play guard and tackle on the offensive line, respectively, and will also start on the defensive line. They will be joined on the offensive line by three JV players from last year, juniors Cory Witter, West Nowotny and Tucker Chemel. Witter will play guard, Nowotny will fill the other tackle position and Chemel will step in at center.
"They are big boys and they are nasty," Harrison said. "It seems we have more size than we've had in a long time on the O-line."
Lucas Kim, a junior and aggressive run stopper, will be Prep's anchor on defense at middle linebacker after missing parts of three league games last year. He'll be joined by Daniel Jung, another defensive leader, at outside linebacker.
"Lucas was the attitude and heart of our defense last year," Harrison said. "He is a dominant force for us. We just have to keep him healthy."
Lucas Kim spent a lot of the offseason in the weight room to ensure he stays injury free this year — anything to get his team into the playoffs.
"We're not one of those teams that just says we want to win it all," Kim said. "We want to take it one step and one game at a time. We are trying to make the playoffs and then we'll take it from there."