KEARNEY — Depth is a precarious thing right now in sports.
If you have it, it can be taken from you rather quickly. Auburn canceled its football practices earlier this week after losing 16 players to either positive COVID-19 tests or high-risk exposure. Head coach Gus Malzahn told media two position groups were impacted enough the staff didn’t feel like it could practice.
If you don’t have much depth to begin with, you have to fight like hell to make sure you keep what precious little you have. Everyone has to be accountable for their own actions. Consider small-town high schools trying to field football seasons.
Fortunately, after a week of game prep, its first full game of the season, and another nearly completed week of game prep, Kearney Catholic has had no player report symptoms of COVID-19.
A smaller C-1 school, the Stars don’t have the budget to mandate any kind of regular testing; there’s no protocol in place at the school, head coach Rashawn Harvey told me. If a kid starts to experience symptoms, it’s incumbent on the parents to get him tested and share that info with the school.
But so far, so good. Kearney Catholic beat Wood River-Shelton last week in front of a good-sized crowd, 65-6, and is preparing for its home-opener this week against Gothenburg in front of fans.
“We haven’t had any issues at all,” Harvey said after practice Wednesday, one every key player went through.
With the exception of one. A second-string linebacker and special teams regular went home during lunch and missed his next class; Harvey made him sit out practice. But it served as a nice reminder of how easily things can get complicated.
“At the C-1 level … depth is a premium,” Harvey said. “You want to play as many juniors and seniors as you can, you try to not throw your younger kids—your freshmen, or your sophomores who aren’t ready yet—you don’t want to throw them to the wolves yet. You want to put your best guys out there that you feel are mature and understand everything and can protect themselves.
“That young man that was out today, he kind of threw off our special teams because he’s a starter on the two special teams that we were going through today, so then we had to move the backup—he didn’t get a rest.”
The Stars worked kickoff return and punt coverage on Wednesday. They were already a little behind the eight-ball after a JV/Freshman game Monday night kept them from holding a full practice at the outset of the week. And with a gameday roster of 52 guys, one personnel changeup can have sort of a cascading effect. That’s what you’re fighting.
For the opener against the Silverbacks, Kearney Catholic had six players who started on both sides of the ball. Five of them were either linebackers or defensive backs on the defensive side. “That’s probably right now a little low,” Harvey said in comparison to other years. “But those guys who were highlighted as starters on defense but not on offense, they’re a No. 2 on offense in a sense. We play two-deep.”
Lose a starting wideout and you lose your starting cornerback in the same blow. Lose your starting linebacker and you’ve lost your top running back.
Coaches and fans and parents throughout college football have stressed it all offseason, but at the high school level it’s particularly true: football is the carrot at the end of the stick and one mistake, one party can cut it off. Kids understand that. The sideline even during practice features kids with face coverings and, for the most part, space between each other.
Harvey and his coaching staff at Kearney Catholic believe they’ve got a talented two-deep, that any of those kids can play and they can be successful. It is interesting, though, to watch their top-line guys practice.
Even at full strength, because you have pass-catchers for Husker commit and senior quarterback Heinrich Haarberg also serving as coverage guys on defense, Haarberg is either throwing to his regular gameday targets against a No. 2 defense or he’s throwing to guys he might not need to have as much chemistry with.
The phrase “iron sharpens iron” gets thrown around a lot in football when you have ones going against ones in practice. Kearney Catholic can’t really do that.
“We talk as a staff during our weekly staff meetings to make sure that if we’ve got our No. 1 offense, we’re going through team offense that day, we’ve got to make sure the backups who are 100% playing on defense,” he said. “They’re not going to stand in the back and just watch. It’d be great if they could stand and watch and learn and see how this blocking scheme worked or why did we run that route, but we have them over playing defense.
“We promote it to them as, ‘That’s another opportunity get better.’ You’re still working on your defensive skills, because here at Kearney Catholic you’re gonna play both sides of the field. We need you to go out there and give us a great look. … Our young men have bought into that. Basically our second-team offense is going over and playing scout D when we go team offense.”
And everyone knows the importance of a scout team during prep week. This week’s opponent, Gothenburg at home (kickoff at 7 p.m. CT), features a triple-option look, a far cry from the Stars shotgun spread system.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.