Heading into last football season, one key question surrounding the Ottawa Pirates was who would be catching the passes thrown by then-returning, now-graduated quarterback Braiden Miller.
This season, with much of a solid receiving corps returning, that question is reversed. But fifth-year head coach Chad Gross, his team coming off a 2-7 campaign, feels he has a solid replacement – junior Colby Mortenson – ready to take the reins.
“Where Braiden was 6-foot-5 and had a strong arm, Colby is a 5-foot-11 athletic quarterback who can move around a little bit,” Gross said at a recent summer workout. “Colby has worked hard in the offseason working on his passing, and I think he will be a good passer before all is said and done.
“He is going to add a different dynamic for us on offense with his ability to run the ball and throw on the run. Having the returners at receiver spots as we do, I’m hopeful that will help Colby settle into his new role a little quicker as well.”
A key for pushing the win total higher this season is not so much in the X’s and O’s, a number of returners said, but in interactions between the players.
“I think the biggest key for our team to be successful this season will be communication,” said senior WR/DB Levi Sheehan, a Times All-Area first-team selection after leading the Pirates with 43 receptions for 667 yards and six TDs. “Not only on the field but off it, and I think we are doing a good job with that already. Not that we didn’t have that last season, but I feel like it may have taken us too long to trust each other. I think we have that already this summer, and hopefully we can continue to make that bond tighter as we go.
“I think another key will be staying strong in the second half. We’ve been able to stay with teams in the first half of games the past two seasons, and then we just haven’t sustained that in second half. We just have to learn to finish.”
Ryder Miller, a junior LB/RB who was an All-Area first-team pick after recording a team-best 81 total tackles including nine for loss, said the Pirates also will need to stay positive at all times.
“I really feel we can be a very good defensive team,” Miller said. “Last season I feel like there were times where we didn’t trust each other and would try and cover for someone that didn’t need it. I feel like trust is a big factor, but I also think we’ve already formed that trust in each other through lifting and working out in the offseason.
“We have to be able to spark each other. Whether it’s the offense doing it for the defense or the other way around, a big key for us is keeping the energy up. There are going to be times where one side of the ball makes a mistake too, but that’s the time we need to do a better job of keeping our heads up and try to make a play to turn things around.”
Gross said he believes the defense, with eight or nine returning starters, is ahead of the game right now but that the offensive line remains a work in progress.
“We did lose a few guys off our offensive line, so we will have some juniors, and even a couple sophomores, in the mix competing for those three spots,” Gross said. “Depth up front will be our question mark, but we will see who steps up. They have all been working hard, and I think they’ve all already improved in the few summer sessions we’ve had.”
As far as other big keys as the Pirates move through summer workouts and into the first weeks of practice, Gross said he can’t disagree with his pair of returning standouts.
“Without question, they have to have trust in their teammates,” Gross said. “Even on the best teams in the state, if one guy isn’t where they are supposed to be on a play, it can easily be a touchdown against or a turnover going the other way. We have stressed having trust, and I think I’ve seen that so far, so that’s a good sign for us.
“I really thought we did a great job of communication in the 7-on-7 at NIU, and in turn we had a pretty good day because of it.”