Ames head coach Bruce Vertanen leads his players to the other side of the field during drills at football practice at the high school in Ames on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.
AMES, Ia. – In Bruce Vertanen’s eyes, the challenges that Ames High’s football team faces this fall are hardly unique.
“This goes in cycles,” the Little Cyclones coach said. “It’s not entirely new.”
“This” is the offensive turnover that Vertanen and the Little Cyclones face this fall. Following an 11-1 season that ended in the Class 4-A quarterfinals, Ames is tasked with replacing its best and brightest offensive skill players. A trio of Elite all-state selections — quarterback Sam Straub, tailback Clifford Kwaw-Mensah and wideout Alex Brammer — are gone, and senior wideout Colby Hansen (20 receptions, 138 yards) is the only returning offensive skill player.
The departed players left huge shoes to fill. Kwaw-Mensah rushed for 2,806 yards (a Class 4-A single-season record) and 36 touchdowns. Straub threw for 3,221 yards and 31 touchdowns, while Brammer caught 89 passes for 1,496 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Only two experienced offensive linemen — guard Michael Holtzbauer and part-time starting guard Anthony Mooney — return.
“I’ve always said that strong programs are led by seniors, so it’s not unusual to have turnover at starting positions year to year,” Vertanen said. “I would say on the average, out of 22 starting positions, we have anywhere from 15 to 18 starting seniors every year. You’ll have turnover every year with strong programs.”
In other words, Vertanen won’t label it a major concern, at least publicly.
“Every year brings new challenges,” he said. “A year ago, we returned quite a bit of offensive experience. This year, we return quite a bit of defensive experience. We have five guys that have multiple games under their belt on the defensive side of the ball. Sometimes things swing back and forth. … You lean toward the experience early on to lead you and that’s what we’re looking at right now.”
That means the Little Cyclones will ask their defense to carry its share of the load while the rebuilt offense finds its way. It is strong in the linebacker and safety corps, with three starting linebackers and two starting safeties returning, led by senior Hank Swalla, the team’s leading tackler a year ago.
“You want to be strong everywhere, but it’s really nice to be strong up the middle with returning inside linebackers, outside linebackers, safeties,” Vertanen said. “Being strong right through the middle of your defense is a nice thing.”
Swalla said the defense will be physical and intense, and he and his fellow seniors are taking a strong leadership role with younger players.
“We try and tell them, listen to the coaches, be positive, but the biggest thing is to tell them to work hard,” he said. “Help them raise the level of their game.”
Offensively, junior quarterback Michael Frankl (who completed all four of his varsity passes a year ago) leads junior Zach Woodbeck. Junior Chris Woodard (387 yards, five touchdowns in 2013) will be the starting tailback, while Colby Shane (six receptions, 159 yards, three touchdowns) will pair with Hansen at receiver.
Holtzbauer said the offense “has some good talent” but added that the veterans need to help the newcomers along.
Vertanen expects his team to move quickly along the learning curve. The biggest factor will be adjusting to the speed of the varsity level.
“You’re going to see tremendous growth game to game because that’s what happens when you see the speed of the game,” he said. “The one thing that’s different throughout the levels … you can be an outstanding freshman or sophomore, an outstanding JV player, but you can’t replicate the speed of the game on the varsity level.
“Speed of the game is what always catches people off guard in the varsity game.”
If Ames thrives this fall, it likely will mean the newcomers caught on quickly.
“None of them are playing their first game,” Vertanen said. “They just might be playing their first varsity game. Quite a few of them have been playing and catching balls for many years of their life. And it’s time for them to step up.”
THE REGISTER’S ’14 IN 2014′ SERIES
Today marks Day 11 of our 14-day series in the Register on the top storylines in central Iowa entering the 2014 high school football season. See the first 10 installments at DesMoinesRegister.com/highschoolinsider.
Coming Sunday: Gilbert
2014 AMES SCHEDULE
Aug. 29 vs. Centennial, 7:00
Sept. 5 at Cedar Falls, 7:45
Sept. 12 at Iowa City High, 7:30
Sept. 19 vs. Marshalltown, 7:00
Sept. 26 at Ankeny, 7:30
Oct. 2 at Sioux City North, 7:30
Oct. 10 vs. Southeast Polk, 7:00
Oct. 17 at East, 7:00
Oct. 24 vs. C.B. Lincoln, 7:00