There will be a lot of new faces taking the field for the Milledgeville football team this year, as the Missiles must replace a strong senior class from their first season in eight-man football last fall.
But among the returning starters is one senior who’s even more eager to get back on the field this season than any of his teammates.
Kacen Johnson is back after missing the second half of last season with a broken left fibula, and he’s ready to rejoin his teammates after being forced to watch the end of 2021 from the sideline.
“Some of the games were tough to sit out,” he said. “Most of the regular-season games, I was pretty excited to watch. But the playoffs, I was really upset because I couldn’t play, and I couldn’t do anything about it, obviously. I’ve worked pretty hard to get back, and I’m ready for this year.
“I appreciate being back out there a lot, and I’m just so grateful that everything worked out.”
Johnson will play wide receiver and cornerback, and it’s the defensive side where his experience will factor in the most. With he and Eric Ebersole surrounded by lots of new starters, the Missiles have been working hard to break in the new guys.
Ebersole says the learning curve hasn’t been too steep, and he’s impressed with the way the new players have grasped the concepts of the eight-man style of defense.
“We’ve seen some grow more than others, but we can’t complain about the effort. The guys are committed to coming here every day and working hard, and we’re seeing improvement each day,” Ebersole said. “It’s not like we’re learning something Monday, then having to learn the same thing Tuesday and wasting valuable time in practice, so that’s been really nice how quick the guys are getting it.
“I think we’ve put in some good work, just showing up and working hard. They’re really taking in what they’re learning, because nobody who’s new understands the difference of varsity football. It’s a different game, a fast game, so getting time, getting reps and seeing what it’s all about really helps guys get to the right spots and make plays.”
Coach Jason Wroble is pleased with the way his younger, less-experienced team has stepped in and stepped up throughout the offseason. He attributes a lot of that to a revised schedule, where the Missiles used their summer contact days over the last three weeks of July, then only had a week off to start August before getting back to work and preparing for the season.
“We used to spread it out a little bit more, but I think I like the new format because you hit it and it’s fresh and you can build and build and build, and I think that’s really helped where we’re at,” Wroble said. “I liked what I saw in the offseason prepping for the season, they seem like they’re eager to prove themselves and they worked real hard. And I like where we’re at already, even with a lot of new faces.
“I feel like they’ve really hit the ground running, and we’re ahead of where we usually are this time of year, because they understand the concepts now in our second year in eight-man. I’m real happy with how they’ve picked up the schemes on both sides of the ball, especially since a lot of them are new.”
In the eight-man game, speed is usually the key on defense. Johnson likes his team’s chances when it comes to covering the field sideline to sideline, and believes that when the new starters fully incorporate the plays they’re hearing from the sideline with what they’re seeing with their own eyes, things will fall into place nicely.
“I think this year we’re going to be pretty fast, just like last year, and I think speed is going to be our main thing, because we’re not super big,” Johnson said. “We’re also getting better at our defensive play-calls, because we’re really going to have to work at it this year. We’re not as talented as we were last year, with so many new guys stepping in, so we’re going to have to get on the same page and grind it out.”
While there are differences in the style and scheme in eight-man football, Ebersole says that the Milledgeville defense is still the same at its core – and they’ve adapted that style well to the eight-man ranks.
“We came off a very aggressive 11-man team – I played some varsity my sophomore year – and playing both, I saw the difference. We played fast before, and it’s so much faster now than we realized,” he said. “… There were some defenses we used where it was strictly all about speed. It’s a lot in game prep, but I’d say the No. 1 thing is how fast the game is played. Open-field tackling is key too; there’s a lot of one-on-one, and that makes tackling very important.”
Wroble agreed that while the style is different, the game is still the same – “It all comes down to blocking and tackling, just executing, like all football,” he said – and he does think the Missiles will be better prepared from the outset this fall after learning the nuances of the eight-man game.
“There are little things we’ve learned, in each phase of the game, but I think we’ve adjusted well,” he said. “On special teams, punting is totally different because the guy off the edge is so much closer to the punter, so you have to spread out the formation a little bit to give the punter more time. Offensively, sometimes it’s hard to protect the quarterback, because they can overwhelm you a little bit more because they attack your blockers one-on-one.
“And defensively, the kids are right, speed always rules – but in eight-man, it’s even more important, because there’s not as much ability in eight-man to get behind a big offensive line and road-grate a defense, so things spill outside, and you’re off and running. And like Eric said, one-on-one tackling is also really important, because it’s a numbers game, and you don’t have the extra guys on the perimeter, so you have to tackle really well. Those are things I think we did last year, and we’re trying to improve on, and I think these guys are getting there nicely.”