Roughriders look to turn over a new leaf as they begin scrimmage season

New St. Marys head football coach Greg Phillips wanted a fresh start for the players on a Roughrider team that ended last season at 1-9, in disarray and eventually with a new coach.

“I told the players when I first met them we need to learn a few things from last year, but at the same time we need to forget about last year,” said Phillips, who left Oak Hill to head the Roughrider program.

Phillips wanted few preconceived notions and no arbitrary limits on where and how his new players fit into his system when practices began the first week of August.

Phillips did want to know why things soured so much in 2010, however.

“I had a discussion with the seniors in June and we just sat down and talked,” Phillips said. “I asked them to talk about last year and what they thought about this year. But there was one rule: I wanted something constructive. The number one thing I heard from them was they were confused. They just didn’t understand what they were supposed to be doing and when they were supposed to be doing it.”

Phillips is trying to make expectations for his players clear. He also said he wanted players to be in spots to be successful.

There are plenty of question marks and opportunities for players to make an impression as the Roughriders are set to kick-off the preseason schedule in tonight’s scrimmage against Xenia at Skip Baughman Stadium at 7 p.m.

Xenia, a Division I school, went 4-6 a season ago and finished 22nd in Region 4 in 2010.

“There have been a lot of surprises and I think we’ll get some more surprises against Xenia,” Phillips said. “I hope in a good way.”

Phillips quickly realized that he couldn’t draw much from it in terms of how talented his team could be for 2011 after spending some time with last year’s game film.

“You’d watch a game (from the 2010 season) and you’d see five or six numbers and then you’d watch another game and you’d see those same five or six numbers disappear,” Phillips said. “They had injuries, a couple tried to come back and got injured again, and it just seemed like a revolving door of players. You’d see a player at linebacker and the next he’d be at defensive back and the next game he’s gone.”

St. Marys moved skill players to wide receiver and tight end to allow for a more opened-up offensive system. “We allowed people to try out for new spots,” Phillips said.

An example of that was Tre Sherman, a senior who played running backin 2010. After spending some time working at quarterback this summer, Sherman has taken to the wide receiver spot.

“Now we’ve got a fast, 6-2 wide receiver, that goes after the ball big-time,” Phillips said.

Jordan Baskin is getting a look at receiver, as well.

“He’s been a really pleasant surprise there,” Phillips said.

In a new offensive system that strives for balance, the Roughriders are trying to upgrade a passing game that averaged just 10.1 yards per game a season ago to go along with a running attack that gained yardage but not many points a season ago.

T.J. Powell started a handful of games last season at quarterback. Powell is back and improving at throwing the ball, Phillips said.

“He has improved, but we need to see how he reacts when a defense is coming after him,” Phillips said.

Tyler Core, a sophomore, and Adam Brown, a sophomore, are also competing at the spot. Brown is injured and won’t play in the first scrimmage.

Phillips said it’s a work in progress as St. Marys moves from a Wing-T offense that was deeply embedded.

“The defense is going to take something away, so you want to have an offense that has methods to exploit their weaknesses,” Phillips said. “They can’t take everything away. At this point we can’t just line up with two plays and tell people to try to stop it.”

Phillips said in his final season at Oak Hill in 2010 his team ran the ball 58 percent of the time. How much the Roughriders run it this season will depend how his team makes that transition into the new system.

“We’ll come in a fork in the road in the first scrimmage,” Phillips said. “We’ve put in a small passing attack. We’re going to see what happens. If we’re efficient with it, we’ll stay with it  and expand it a little bit. If not, we’ll expand the running game a little bit. We have a few plays and we’re running them pretty well so far. Then we’ll evaluate which road to go down.”

Phillips believes he has a good stable of running backs, but health will be a key. D.J. Manning began last season as part of a backfield that looked strong, but he and now graduated running back Kyle Puschel suffered injuries that set back the running game.

“We’ve got to keep that guy healthy,” Phillips said about Manning. “He’s really fast. We’ve a got a few special plays that will utilize those athletes. We’ll try to get some athletes in space and see what happens.”

The Riders moved to a 50 slant angle defense that will move into a nickel package against the numerous spread offenses on St. Marys’ schedule.

Phillips said right now he has three players playing two ways, but all three are in rotation to keep them fresh. Steve Elshoff, Tre Sherman and D.J. Manning are going both ways at this point.

Numbers are slightly down for the Roughriders this season, but Phillips said his eighth grade team has 52 players.

“If we have some winning team, we’ll grow that,” Phillips said. “There’s a lot going on these days. Players don’t want to play on a 1-9 team.”

He’s hoping last year's record is a minor footnote in the long run of success at St. Marys.