PUNXSUTAWNEY — Last year, Punxsutawney finished 5-5 in the regular season and improved from a subpar showing in 2011, punching its third ticket to the District 9 Class AAA playoffs in four years under coach Alan Nichol.
The Chucks experienced their share of ups and downs over the course of last year, but for a proven winner like Nichol, a mediocre finish felt awfully unsatisfying.
So with a significant chunk of last year’s key cogs returning this year, Nichol plans to get Punxsutawney back to its winning ways and back in contention for a third run at a district title game in five years.
“We’re going to do some things a bit different on both sides of the ball, but that’s only because we want to get the most out of the talent we have,” Nichol said. “At times, it seemed like we were able to do that last year, but in other instances, we weren’t. There’s a lot of potential here, just like last year. We’ve just got to become more cohesive as a unit.”
Senior wide receiver Clayton Dale and junior slotback Dakota Byers are the sparkplugs in the Chucks’ multiple I-formation offense.
Dale, a two-time All-Keystone Shortway Athletic Conference Large-School Division pick, finished tied for fifth in the area in receptions last year with 24. Dale nabbed at least one reception in each of the Chucks’ 11 games and finished with 329 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Byers, an all-conference selection last year, caught 10 passes for 193 yards and three touchdowns.
Dale and Byers should make the jump for untested quarterbacks Matt Burkett, a senior, and Dakota Thomas, a junior, considerably smoother. Burkett and Thomas, who only received snaps as junior varsity quarterbacks last year, will share time at the position, depending on the scenario.
“They’re definitely the strength of our offense,” Nichol said of Dale and Byers. “Those two guys, along with our tight ends, Parker Weaver and Andrew Fedigan, will allow us to go four wide on the outside. We also have a returning starter coming back at tailback in Christian Falgout, who was our second-leading rusher last year. We really have some weapons at the skill positions. We just need to get our guys up front ready, and so far we’ve been working hard at doing that.”
While the Chucks might throw more than they run in their multiple I-formation offense, senior tailback Falgout plans to balance their attack and play a major role in their ground game.
Last year, Falgout rushed for 749 yards on 172 attempts (4.4 average) and scored nine touchdowns.
Returning starters Luke Shiock, a junior guard, and Jonathan Voss, a senior tackle, anchor the Chucks’ offensive line. Shiock and Voss are flanked by junior center Ethan Ambler, sophomore tackle Brandon Douthit and junior guard Keegan Fischer.
Juniors Perry Arrington and Travis Perry share the load at fullback, while senior Will Curtis and junior Fedigan split reps at tight end.
“We want to spread the field out horizontally more,” Nichol said. “We have the personnel this year, so we’ve changed some of our packages in an effort to really spread things out.”
A former strong safety and one of the most dependable playmakers in the 4-2-5 defense last year, Falgout beefed up from 175 to 200 pounds and made the move to inside linebacker this season.
Senior Josh Schuckers, sophomore Lance Pennington, and Fischer will see time at inside linebacker. Nichol hopes Falgout and the rest of his undersized corps of linebackers can use their speed and explosiveness to make up for their lack of mass.
“He came to me in the offseason and said he wanted to give inside linebacker a go,” Nichol said of Falgout. “He’s worked hard on his speed and his strength, and he’s looking good.
“Josh Schuckers is the same way. He was a strong safety type, but since we were short on linebackers and he’s such a good hitter, we moved him there, too. It’s a different game inside, but we’re very pleased with how they’re getting to the ball.”
On the defensive line, Nichol said the 6-foot, 265-pound Shiock will provide the best push at the tackle spot. The rest of the defensive front consists of returning starter Curtis (tackle), junior Jacob Coalmer (tackle), junior Jacob Gotwald (tackle), junior Dalton Maines (defensive end) and Perry (defensive end).
Burkett and Fedigan play strong safety, Byers starts at free safety for the second straight year, and Dale and Weaver return to man the corners.