COLUMBIA - The success of last year's 7-3 Hickman football team was largely tied into the effectiveness of its running game. Head coach Jason Wright hopes to replicate that success this year, but says things might look a little different this time around.
"We're still going to run, don't get me wrong, but we're just doing it in a different way," Wright said.
With only four starters returning for Hickman offense , there will plenty of new faces carrying the ball for the Kewpies. The most prominent of these faces belongs to junior quarterback Matt Herman. After seeing only limited duty last year, Herman will make his first varsity start on tonight against visiting Liberty.
The team's youth has presented a challenge for the coaching staff throughout most of the offseason.
"Our learning curve is extremely wide right now," Wright said. "We're so inexperienced with fundamentals, learning how to practice and toughness. It's a process, and we're trying to work through it."
Along with the team's lack of game experience, it is also new to the offensive system. After spending the past five years as head coach at Cameron High School, new offensive coordinator Eric Thomas has brought a new offensive philosophy to Hickman football.
I-formations and power running will be replaced with a no-huddle spread scheme, similar to the one the Missouri Tigers run. However, Thomas insists that, at its core, his offense brings the same values as before.
"I don't think we're changing the identity of the team. I think we can have that same style with being a little bit different with formations," Thomas said. "Just because we're not under center and we're not in the (I-formation) doesn't mean that we're not a downhill running football team."
The members of that downhill running team will hope to replace the running back tandem of Tucker Bounds and Rob Heath that was responsible for more than 2,300 all-purpose yards last season. While quarterbacks are normally passers first and runners second, in the new system, running the football all starts with the quarterback.
The option plays that the offense centers around place a great deal of responsibility on the quarterback with proper footwork and pitch techniques. While that sort of workload for a first-year player might seem like a lot, Thomas has faith in his young signalcaller.
"Our biggest asset with Matt is that he's heady," Thomas said. "He's smart about getting people lined up. He's done a good job of learning the system. He wants to know what's going on, and he wants to know what the defense is doing."
Herman, however, is quick to point out that his spread-offense education has a lot to do with who's been teaching it.
"Yes, it's hard learning a whole new offense. But the way (Thomas) teaches it, and the way we've worked on it, it's been a lot easier than you'd think," Herman said.
While still young, the relationship between Thomas and the Hickman program seems to be quite strong. Herman praised not only his coach's schematic prowess, but also the way he carries himself on the field and in practice.
"He's fun, but he's also firm and he's strict," Herman said. "He'll make everyone on the team better."
Thomas, a Jefferson City native, came to Hickman in order to be closer to family, but he knew exactly what sort of football environment he would be coming into.
"I know the passion that they have for the game of football as coaches," Thomas said. "I love staffs that want to be intense and want to coach football, and there's no doubt that the staff here at Hickman does that."
The Kewpies and their coach say the mutual respect they've formed and the work ethic they've displayed can overcome the inexperience that lines the roster.
"We're young, but that's not an excuse," Herman said. "We've always going to a strive for a district title."