The first obvious difference in the Jace Pavlovich McPherson High football era is the pace of practice as he’s conducting team camp this week.
Pavlovich has instituted a more uptempo practice than his predecessor and mentor, Tom Young. The legendary Young retired after the 2014 season after leading the Bullpups to a 72-25 record and playoff appearances in all nine of his seasons as he changed the football culture at a school that had been a graveyard for coaches.
“I am happy with where we are at after the first three days,” Pavlovich said Wednesday. “Our seniors are embracing the leadership role well. We have cut our camp down to 3 hours and they have kept up a great level of intensity throughout. As a matter of fact, we were able to finish practice 11 minutes early today.”
The Bullpups are coming off a 7-3 season, which included rousing district playoff victories over Buhler and Hays, but ended with a thud with a disappointing home loss to sub-.500 Mulvane in the first round of the Class 4A Division I playoffs.
The Bullpups must replace an excellent senior class that filled most of the starting positions, most notably three-year dual-threat quarterback Kyler Kinnamon, who virtually rewrote the MHS record book except for passing yards and touchdowns.
Pavlovich said contestants for the job are junior Casen Hoover and sophomore Drew Labertew. Hoover broke his leg early last season, but recovered to the point where he was a key contributor for MHS’ runner-up state baseball team this spring. Labertew had a solid season for a powerful MHS freshman team that will yield several players who figure prominently in the team’s plans this year despite being just sophomores.
“I couldn't be happier with the situation we are in,” Pavlovich said. “We have two kids that could very easily start for us. They both have similar styles. Our quarterback run game should be pretty good as athletic as they are in open space. Our five-step passing game is not as sharp as it needs to be this fall, but we will get there throughout the course of the summer.”
Whoever gets the job will have a couple of quality targets to throw to, if practice is any indication. Senior Spenser Wine (whose season was curtailed to two games last year because of shoulder surgery) and Caleb Spaich are both tall receivers with good hands. They should provide opposing cornerbacks nightmares with their height and jumping ability.
The other major question mark is at running back. Young turned out 1,000-yard backs almost yearly, but it’s been 10 years since the position has been so unsettled, though there’s no shortage of candidates.
“Noah Jirgens is taking the majority of reps as our tailback right now,” Pavlovich said. “Physically he could be one of the best backs we have had in a while. Once he gets our schemes down mentally, he could have a great year. Fortunately for us, we have some depth at tailback. Klayton Goering made the move from offensive line to tailback. He is a 15.5 110 hurdler, so he is fully capable of running the ball. Klayton is more of a bruising type of runner, which we really like. Sophomore Austen Hunt and fullback Taylor Kynaston have been doing a nice job as well.”
Of course in football, a lot depends on play in the offensive and defensive lines. Pavlovich likes what he’s seen so far as many of the returnees have shown the benefits of the weight program as they're bigger, stronger and faster.
“Our strength is going to be our offensive line and our front seven on defense,” Pavlovich said. “We could have the biggest offensive line since we have been here. There is no doubt we are going to lean on those guys a lot. Defensively, our front seven is going to carry us. We have some pretty good size with our interior linemen and some great speed on the edges.”
The Bullpups do have to replace Shrine Bowl selection Ty Hart, Nathan Nutter and Collin Baldwin at linebackers, not to mention star ends Cody Starkel and Cole Hanken. MHS will be greener than summer grass on defense, but it's a unit that figures to get better as the season goes along.
The Bullpups make their annual trek to Pittsburg State’s team camp on June 7-9. They are definitely stepping up in competition, as they’ll go up against bigger schools Blue Valley, Blue Valley West, Manhattan, Springdale, Ark., Bonner Springs, Carthage, Mo., Great Bend and Wasburn Rural.
“We are going to figure out what we need to work on right away,” Pavlovich said.