Brandon Reinthaler passes during a game last October against Antigo at Mike Webster Stadium. The ball figures to be in the air more often for the Hodags this fall as they switch to a spread-stlye offense. (file photo by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Date Opponent Time
8/15 - at Northland Pines (scrimmage) 1 p.m.
8/22 - ANTIGO 7 p.m.
8/29 - at Wittenberg-Birnamwood 7 p.m.
9/5 - MERRILL 7 p.m.
9/12 - at Lakeland 7 p.m.
9/19 - Milwaukee King (at Denmark) 6:30 p.m.
9/26 - MEDFORD 7 p.m.
10/3 - at Antigo (Bell Game) 7 p.m.
10/10 - ASHLAND (Homecoming) 7 p.m.
10/17 at Mosinee 7 p.m.
8/13/2014 3:15:00 PM Team Preview: RHS football
The Rhinelander High School football team's offense will look much different in 2014 than it has over the past decade.
Whether that will lead to more points and more victories for a team that has struggled for both in recent years is a question that will soon be answered.
It's a new day in RHS football with first-year head coach Chris Ferge bringing in an uptempo spread-style scheme to an offense that was more ground and pound under previous head coach Jim Moore.
The installation of the playbook is almost complete just in time for a four-team scrimmage at Northland Pines Friday and the season opener a week from Friday against Antigo at Mike Webster Stadium.
"We're almost all the way there," Ferge said Tuesday. "There's a lot of things that we've got to make corrections off of certain plays. What you think a kid knows and what they really know you get to figure out in a scrimmage. The scrimmage is there to make those corrections so that you are a lot more prepared for gameday when we have our first game against Antigo."
There is plenty of room for improvement for a program that went 1-9 last year and has not won more than three games since 2006 - also the last time it defeated archrival Antigo for Gene Shepard's Bell.
All of that doesn't matter much to Ferge, who said he is more focused on the most current task at hand.
"It's this simple - it's who do we have this week," he said of the team's goals and expectations. "That's it. I don't look any further than that. This week we have our scrimmage and that's what we're focusing on. Next week, it will be Antigo. That's how it is, you only work on one thing at a time."
Last year's offensive numbers can be thrown out the window - which the Hodags' don't necessarily mind, given they were last in the GNC in total offense, averaging 148.8 yards per game, and sixth in the league in scoring at 7.6 points per game.
The Hodags lost their three top rushers from that offense - Connor Johnson (656 yards, 6 TDs), Ryan Nehls (295 yards, 1 TD) and Luke Linsmeyer (197 yards, 2 TDs). The remainder of the returning players combined for 10 net yards rushing a year ago.
Cole Oettinger (4 carries, 24 yards in 2013) has seen the majority of reps at running back so far in practice.
Calling the signals for the offense will be junior Brandon Reinthaler, who took over the starting QB duties from Linsmeyer midway through last season. Reinthaler completed 22 of 58 passes for 220 yards, no touchdowns and seven interceptions. He and the Hodag offense looked sharp most of the summer during a 7-on-7 passing league and Ferge said Reinthaler has what it takes to excel in this new offense.
"First of all he's smart and he's a baseball player," Ferge said. "Baseball players in this offense, there's a lot of things where it's like picking up a grounder and throwing the ball to the right or to the left, like making a throw to first base. That's what's going on with our screen game. He does very well with that. He needs to keep his eyes up and looking at the defense, to read the defense, to get us in and out of different situations. Sometimes he's going to be able to see the defense better than I am because he's on the field. He's got to be able to check himself out of a play or let me know that (the) play is not going to work. We're working on that right now and how to pick up blitzes, knowing where to put the ball. So far he's been very smart. He's made good decisions and I know we're going to improve a lot with that."
Reinthaler will have plenty of targets to throw to. Aside from Oettinger, who caught several balls out of the backfield in 7-on-7, the Hodags will have tall targets on the outside, including seniors Mason Shallow and Nathaniel Sampson and juniors Eric Tracy and Luke Roberts.
"We have size. We have speed," Ferge said of his receiving corps. "They're able to catch the ball. I'm very excited about it."
Just because the Hodags are running spread, don't expect them to chuck the ball downfield on every down, Ferge cautioned.
"You've got to set them up," he said. "You just can't go big play, big play because you're setting yourself up for failure, in my opinion. You've got to give yourself a couple of easy ones to get in the groove, get the offense moving, get a couple of first downs and then start taking your shots if you're able to."
The Hodags have a pair of holes to fill on the offensive line with Bryce Bilogan and Adam Woebbeking lost to graduation. Brett LaBrasca, Logan Enerson and Dominic Littleton are among the incumbents battling for a spot on the line. Junior Tim Palubicki has taken the majority of snaps at center, a position that takes on greater importance this year given that virtually every snap will be from a shotgun formation.
After a intrasquad practice on Saturday that saw quarterbacks scrambling, Ferge said the offensive line is one area the team is still working to shore up.
"I think we need to improve our pass blocking," he said. "Our run blocking is actually a little better than our pass blocking. We need to understand that no matter what front we see, what blitz we see, in our offense, we are able to pick up anything."
On defense, things are much the same as they were last year with a 3-5-3 scheme utilized by defensive coordinator Gary Zarda.
Zarda said continuity in the defense is key, especially this year when the team is trying to learn a new offense.
"Probably 80 (to) 85 percent of things will be similar so the kids have a base understanding and they're able to put a lot of their mental load into learning the new offensive concepts," Zarda said.
There are some tweaks to the scheme this year, mainly to shore up a passing defense that surrendered a conference-worst 125 yards per game through the air.
"We are going to look to help ourselves out and diversify our coverages a little bit this year and do some things alignment-wise that are going to help us out," Zarda said, who added he expects the secondary will be more physical with receivers this fall.
To that end, Zarda said going against a passing offense in practice will only help the team shore up its passing defense.
"Coach Ferge's offense represents where football's going in the future," he said. "In thinking about his offense and how it is I would be challenged in stopping it, it's made us thing about what we need to strengthen in terms of coverage on defense ... Football's modernizing and the old adage of 'drop to a spot' is not sufficient to cover these new, advanced offenses."
Four of the top five tacklers on last year's team were lost to graduation - Woebbeking, Austyn Zarda, Johnson and Linsmeyer. Among the leaders retuning on defense are linebackers Henry Kipper, Jordan Lundt and Oettinger; defensive backs Tracy, Shallow and Sampson; and defensive lineman LaBrasca.
Zarda said, above all else, expect a more vocal defense from the Hodags this year.
"I want to see more in the way of communication," he said. "We've talked about it as a staff. It's easy for us to tell the kids what they should communicate, but we need to give them language. We've put a big emphasis this year on talking as the offense sets up. (It) shows our confidence. It shows the offense that we know what's coming."
Depth was a major issue for the team last year, with a number of players starting on both offense and defense. Ferge said while his team does not have the depth to utilize a true two-platoon system this year, his intention is to have players focus on one side of the ball, while seeing an occasional series on the other.
"I believe we are two-deep right now and we can pretty much go at least 1.5. What that means is that we're going to have a guy, if he is going both ways, he's not going to be going both ways the entire (game)," Ferge explained. "So if he's an offensive player first, he goes one way on offense and on defense he might get a series, but on the next series someone's going to be taking his position. We want to get as many kids involved as we can because we want as many kids to come out for football, enjoy football and get a good experience on this team."
The Hodags can feel fairly comfortable about their specialists. Senior Gabbe Millot was the second-team kicker in the Great Northern Conference. She converted 6 of her 8 extra point attempts and was 1 for 2 on field goals. Reinthaler averaged 31.5 yards per punt and pinned opponents inside the 20 on five occasions.
The first test for the team takes place Friday when Rhinelander scrimmages Northland Pines, Crandon and Phillips at Eagle River.
Ferge said he has a clear idea of what will constitute a successful scrimmage.
"We have to outhit the other team, be more aggressive and make less mistakes. That's a good scrimmage to me," he said. "That's what I'm looking at, an opportunity to make corrections and get our kids in the right position to understand exactly what they need to do to be successful."
The Aug. 22 contest against Antigo will be a non-conference affair. The teams will meet again Oct. 3 in Antigo for the annual Bell Game tilt. Other noteable games on the schedule include the GNC opener against Merrill Sept. 5, a non-conference game against Milwaukee King that will be played at Denmark High School Sept. 19 and the homecoming game Oct. 10 against Ashland.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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