SWEET HOME — A small schematic tweak has paid considerable dividends for the Sweet Home High football team.
Since the beginning of Sk-Em League play, the Huskies have regularly deviated from a traditional four-man front to better utilize their bounty of smaller, quicker athletes. Sweet Home’s primary defense now features three down linemen, two defensive end/strong safety hybrids, two middle linebackers and four secondary players in a Cover-4 scheme.
The Huskies (6-1, 3-1), who close the regular season Friday at Elmira (3-3, 1-3), can defend a multitude of offensive formations without changing personnel.
“When you play teams like Junction City and Elmira, those guys go from a double wing, foot-to-foot split and then all of a sudden they are in a spread,” Sweet Home coach Dustin Nichol said. “And you’ve got to be able to cover people without subbing. So we thought that we’d give this a try, and the results have been pretty good so far.”
Following a tough loss at top-ranked Cottage Grove, the Huskies cruised to a 39-0 shutout of Junction City and routed Sutherlin 40-8 last week.
Sweet Home is surrendering a Sky-Em-best 11.6 points per game this season, the third-lowest total in all of 4A. The Huskies have already wrapped up second place in the league and a spot in the 4A state postseason.
“Nichol’s biggest thing is numbers,” said senior safety Keegan Holly. “We want to make sure we have a guy matched up for every single one of them, so if everyone does their job there is no way we can fail. We trust our teammates… and we get it done. It’s one big unit moving around.”
Added fellow senior Austin James, a defensive end/safety hybrid: “We brought back a lot of the guys that had been playing on our defense last year that are now juniors and seniors. We’ve got a good idea of what our responsibilities are on any given play and in every situation, so it just makes it easy for us.”
Austin Griffin, Noah Moore and Kelton Gaskey are the Huskies’ starting defensive linemen.
When facing power formations, Nathan Virtue and James act as stand-up defensive ends or rush outside linebackers while interior backers Jake Swanson and Bryce Coulter fill the middle. Virtue and James convert to strong safeties against spread looks.
The Huskies play Cover-4 in the secondary with cornerbacks Casey Tow and Connor Russell and safeties Austin Stevens and Holly.
“We have such great athletes at outside and inside linebacker,” Holly said. “Those outside backers can play defensive end as much as they can cover passes, and it’s awesome to have that kind of diversity.”
Another reason for the schematic change was to better utilize the Huskies’ talented group of seniors.
Just three of Sweet Home’s eight 12th-graders play on the defensive line.
“We don’t have a lot of them, but the seniors we’ve got are really good players,” Nichol said. “So we needed to get them on the field and the types of seniors we had weren’t the linemen type. They were 160-pound, 6-foot-tall cover guys that we needed to find a spot for.”
With its stout defense leading the way, Sweet Home has already secured a ninth consecutive trip to the playoffs. But the Huskies want more.
Sweet Home hasn’t reached the state quarterfinals since 2009; the program’s last round of 16 appearance came in 2014.
Griffin believes the disappointment at Cottage Grove, a mistake-filled 53-12 defeat, has provided ample motivation.
“I truly believe in order to be a champion, you need to experience everything about a sport,” Griffin said. “Losing to Cottage Grove gives us that experience. It’s unfortunate that happened, but there’s no shame in losing to Cottage Grove. We all needed that failure and it was a learning experience and growing experience for me. I hope it was for the other guys, too.”