The passing combination of juniors Justin Butler and Gary Chambers led a late three-game charge to lift Ironwood football to the 5A-II playoffs in 2009.
Both are now senior leaders on the team. So why is new coach Ian Curtis excited about the running game?
Because if the Eagles take to the new multiple veer — aka triple option — scheme, the offense will have more balance and flexibility. It should keep them on the field longer too.
“The goal of the multiple veer is to run a ball-control oriented offense. I also I think it’s especially useable because I don’t see many teams in this part of the country committed to running it,” Curtis said. “I think the kids are really excited about it. It’s a fun offense to run. Offensive linemen can spend a lot of time releasing downfield and blocking linebackers.”
While the triple option does not rely on a single lead back as much as some other ground attacks — with both split backs and the quarterback presenting threats on most run plays — the team has a reliable No. 1 option in senior Andrew DiCarlo.
DiCarlo led the Eagles backfield-by-committee last year with 277 yards. With his combination of strength, quick feet and intelligence, DiCarlo will figure heavily into the game plan, Curtis said.
The triple option thrives on creating confusion, and Ironwood hopes to add to the chaos by operating it without a huddle. This, in theory, allows the Eagles to set the tempo and limit defensive substitutions.
“We don’t huddle, it’s just go, go, go. Or we can slow it down. I think that will confuse defenses somewhat,” said junior quarterback/linebacker Kyle Zoellner. “Our running game is really hard to defend when we run it right.”
Zoellner saw nearly as much time running the new offense as Butler over the summer. That doesn’t signify a quarterback competition as much as it points to the physical toll of the triple option on a quarterback.
“Just because of the hazards of running the veer scheme, the quarterback is going take some hard hits. Even if he gets rid of the football, he’s going to get hit more often than not,” Curtis said. “Knowing that ahead of time, you really need to have two quarterbacks ready to go, at minimum.”
Butler seized the starting job early last season, and became more comfortable every week, save the first-round playoff loss to Phoenix Pinnacle. He threw for 1,023 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2009.
Though Butler thrived in the spread offense Ironwood employed late last year, Curtis said he has the physical and mental makeup to succeed in an option attack.
“Justin is a big, strong, intelligent young man,” Curtis said. “He’s a leader who garners a lot of respect on the team and around Ironwood’s campus.”
And he’ll still have the tall (6-3), talented Chambers to throw to. In 2009 Chambers hauled in 39 receptions for 503 yards and seven touchdowns. He also shined late, catching 19 passes for 300 yards in the Eagles final four games. Chambers is considered one of the state’s top receivers and has interest from Division I programs.
“Gary’s a fantastic athlete. He’s jumped on board and has been working out hard and serves as a leader to the younger men in the program,” Curtis said.
Senior tight end Donnie Black is another reliable target who also blocks well, Curtis said. Joining Black on the front wall is senior center Matt Guffy, who Curtis said is the strongest guy on the squad as well as an intelligent team leader.
On the other side of the ball, the new 3-5-3 scheme is a good match for this year’s team, much like the 4-3 look in 2009 befitted last year’s senior-dominated line.
“I think it fits our team,” Curtis said. “The 3-5-3 is about getting speed on the field, and we’re certainly not going to be the biggest team on the field every Friday night. But I’ll put our speed up there with most of the teams we play.”
Guffy figures into the defensive line mix as does senior Aaron Adams.
The heart of the defense, both in style and talent, is the linebacking corps. Senior Michael Carter is the Eagles’ leading returning tackler, and he’ll be joined by senior Todd Manning and juniors Matt Paparella and Matt Johnson. Butler also will see some snaps at linebacker.
Senior Garrett Robertson, who picked off seven passes last year, returns to the secondary and will serve as the Eagles’ kicker and reserve quarterback.
Ironwood sports its traditional minefield of a schedule, with a game against perennial 5A-I kingpin Chandler Hamilton. This year, however, players appear to have more confidence in their ability to navigate the gauntlet.
“We used to think of ourselves as ‘we’re just low Ironwood,’ but now we’ve got a real shot,” Paparella said.
Two key swing games loom before region play. One is the season opener at home Sept. 3 against Deer Valley. Both teams have new coaches and a very different look. The other key non-region game, Sept. 24 at St. Mary’s.
Centennial and Westview are the only constants in the Desert West. And, ultimately, to make noise, Curtis said, Ironwood must prove it belongs on the field with those two teams.
“In watching game footage last year, Ironwood competed incredibly well against Westview. I think the same will hold true this year. I think it’s going to be a competitive game,” Curtis said. “To be honest with you, I think the Centennial game will be competitive as well. Centennial is a fantastic program with fantastic coaches. But we’re not slouches. We’ve got a lot of fantastic players over here who are chomping at the bit to get out and show people what they’re capable of doing on Friday nights.”