Those looking from the outside and seeing a winless spring season may not have noticed, but the Ottawa Pirates football team – most noticeably junior quarterback Braiden Miller in his first year as the starter behind center – took some significant strides from start to finish of that COVID-19-altered campaign.
Miller and the rest of the Pirates feel they have carried that forward momentum through the historically short offseason and will bring it with them into the official opening day of practice Monday.
“It’s definitely weird, but you’ve got to adjust,” the quarterback said of there being only four months between the end of the spring season and the start of the traditional fall one. “We’ve got to do the best with what we have ... (but the short offseason) definitely helps. We’ve got that momentum still rolling here as we go into the season.”
Talking mid-camp when the Pirates hosted St. Bede Academy for an informal 7-on-7, coach Chad Gross mentioned the summer – although different – has been a productive one for OHS in terms of both building on the spring season and getting looks at players in new roles after 10 seniors graduated.
“It’s been a good camp to see kids and put them in different positions ... to see who can step up and make a play when we need it.”— Ottawa head football coach Chad Gross
“We’ve had a good summer, attendance, weight room,” Gross said. “This group enjoys working out. They get in there and compete with one another and push each other. It’s nice to see the camaraderie this group has.
“And it’s been a good camp to see kids and put them in different positions ... to see who can step up and make a play when we need it.”
There is no question who will fill the role of quarterback.
After the transfer of previous signal-caller Brett Galletti, Miller took over behind center last school year. Despite the odd circumstances – including a pandemic radically changing the timing, format and length of the season – Miller developed into the centerpiece of the Pirates’ offense, setting a school record for pass attempts (36) and passing yards (258) in a game against Kaneland and finishing 72 of 140 for 900 yards and five touchdowns for the season.
Miller also down the stretch reduced the turnovers that led to him finishing with 12 interceptions.
“I feel like he has come into this year with more confidence,” Gross said. “He started to really turn a corner, I thought, last year, middle of the year to the end of the year. He understood what defenses were doing to him or trying to take away and where he had to go with the ball.”
That aspect of the position has been a focus for Miller over the summer.
“As much mental stuff as we can get it – getting the plays in, knowing what we’ve got to do to have a better season than last time,” he said.
Another focus has been figuring out who will be on the receiving end of Miller’s passes this fall.
Gone to graduation are the receivers on the other end of 79.2% of Miller’s completions, 80.0% of his touchdown passes and 93.3% of his passing yardage from the spring – the bulk of those numbers put up by dynamic wideouts Bryar Naggs (29 receptions for 472 yards and two TDs) and Jacob Serby (18 catches for 199 yards and two TDs).
The top returning pass-catchers are senior Ryan DeMoss (nine receptions for 100 yards and one TD in the spring) and sophomore Ryder Miller (five catches for 57 yards from the running back position). After them, Gross is looking at a number of players who spent more time making plays on defense in the spring.
“We have a lot of spots open, a lot of catches,” Gross said. “We lost Briar Naggs and Jake Serby, two kids who [Miller] leaned on a lot last year and who caught a lot of passes for us. So a lot of balls to be caught this year.
“There are a lot of young kids who played on our defense last year that are now going to get a spot on offense. You’ve got both corners, Conner Price and Levi Sheehan, who had a few interceptions and can go get the ball. Dillan Quatrano played safety last year and is hopping in a lot for us offensively. Ryder Miller was a freshman last year asked to do a lot of stuff, and he’s going to settle in a running back/slot role for us offensively.
“There are a lot of openings, and Braiden does a great job of distributing it to whoever’s open. He’s looked good so far, and any kid who’s open is going to get the ball, so the opportunity is there.”