Van Wert juniors Colin Smith (8) and Justice Tussing (20) will be the driving forces in what should be an improved Cougar running game in 2014. Van Wert welcomes Bryan for the season opener on Friday night. (DHI Media file photo)
Van Wert juniors Colin Smith (8) and Justice Tussing (20) will be the driving forces in what should be an improved Cougar running game in 2014. Van Wert welcomes Bryan for the season opener on Friday night. (DHI Media file photo)
DHI Media Sports Editor
VAN WERT — In his third season at the helm of the Van Wert football program, head coach Keith Recker is expecting to field a more competitive team in 2014. The schedule, however, does few favors for the up-and-coming Cougars. Not only do they play in a conference, the Western Buckeye League, with schools one and two divisions bigger, but they open the year against Bryan, a team that hung 125 points on the Cougars over the past two meetings.
Though the Golden Bears lost a considerable chunk of their 12-1 team that lost a 46-43 shootout with Kenton in the Division IV regional final last year, Recker says the cupboard is anything but empty for Bryan in 2014.
“They look a lot better on film than we thought they would with losing 18 seniors and that class they had,” Recker said. “They only have three returning starters on defense and two or three on offense, but the guys that filled in (are doing well). They have some really nice athletes on the edge, two of the guys they have back on offense are two of their better o-linemen, and this quarterback is mobile and has a nice arm.”
“I expect them to use those athletes, try to get us on the edge and gets some mismatches,” guessed the Van Wert coach. “We’ll just have to see how we match up out there.”

The Golden Bears used a balanced attack that averaged nearly 250 yards passing each game last year and 196 per game on the ground. Stopping the run was more than a minor problem for the Cougars last year. No one in the WBL gave up more yards on the ground than the Cougars did.
In the offseason, Recker and his coaching staff looked to make whatever changes necessary to improve the run defense.
“We really had to evaluate ourselves. What we were doing wasn’t working. Even Defiance, who throws the ball, last year was running on us. We knew we had to figure something out,” Recker explained. “We actually had a playbook ready to go, we had studied it, went to a couple of clinics, and I got a call from someone in Indianapolis that said ‘have you ever seen what we’re doing?’ We (the coaching staff) get down there, and we’re in there for three and a half hours, and we looked at each other and said we’re scrapping everything we just did for the last two months.”
Van Wert’s new 3-3 defensive scheme allows the free safety (Ryan Stoller) to serve as almost an free player. “That’s been huge for us, because he’s coming downhill and really helping us get that seventh man in the box that can help stop the run.”
That new system was on display throughout the preseason and Recker liked what he saw, minus a few correctable mistakes.
“It was really good to see against Versailles and against Crestview, two teams that line up and want to run the ball. That was our fear: we’re taking one defensive lineman off the field and we weren’t very good against the run (last year), so how is this going to work? I really liked how it looked against both of those teams,” Recker continued.
“We gave up some big plays, but those were off of some missed assignments. Those are very easily fixed.”
Running a spread attack with junior quarterback Colin Smith, Recker expects to see an offense capable of explosive plays, both through the air and on the ground, where running back Justice Tussing may see a bigger role.
“We have hit them with some of the shorter passes, and trying to bring people up,” Recker said of a new receiving corps that has speed to burn. “We’re planning on that (the underneath routes) being open on Friday, and once they (the receivers) get it, they can use their speed.”
“We’re going to let Colin read things,” Recker said of the running game. “We’ve put in a little bit more for Justice, just straight hand-offs where we can get him the ball. He sees the lanes really well. Whichever one of those guys gets it, we feel really good about the run if we can get guys covered up, up front.”
The Cougars came through the preseason without any major injuries, though a few offensive linemen missed some time. All will be healthy and on the field Friday, however, and Recker says the play of those in the trenches will dictate the success of his squad.
“That was tough in our first two scrimmages, with our right guard and our right tackle out, then big John Averesch came back against Crestview, but we kept Nolan (Smith) out. Now he’s ready to go. Nolan is our best lineman, I think by far, so having him back should help quite a bit,” Recker surmised.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Recker continued. “I think we have some athletes on the edge, but we have to run the ball against a team like Bryan and kind of try to shorten the game. Those guys (the offensive line) are going to be huge for us.”