Collins-Maxwell-Baxter head football coach Rob Luther is counting on experience and better luck in the health department to overcome depth issues in 2016 as the Raiders aim for their third-consecutive playoff appearance.
CMB enters the season coming off a 6-4 campaign in which it was bounced from the opening round of the Class 2A playoffs by Anamosa. The Raiders endured a plethora of injuries, along with some team conduct code violations, last fall that prevented them from going at full strength for almost the entire season.
In 2016, CMB’s numbers will be down considerably. The Raiders also face the outside distraction of the potential decision to end the consolidation between the Collins-Maxwell and Baxter high schools after this season.
To top it off, CMB must adjust to a new district alignment. The Raiders will move from 2A District 7 to 2A District 3 this fall, facing several unfamiliar teams.
But despite the adversity, the Raiders have high hopes of returning to state this fall. CMB features a strong senior class of 18 players and returns a lot of experience from not only last year’s team but the 2014 squad that won a district championship and finished 10-1.
“We’re definitely going to go out pulling out all the stops and having a great season,” CMB head coach Rob Luther said. “With all of the CMB talk, we’re focusing on this year. Even if something officially gets decided, what I promise you is we’re playing 2016 CMB football. If we worry about next year (and) worry about what (school) boards are going to do we’re not going be focused, so we focus on this football season. Our slogan is ‘avoid the noise.’”
Back for CMB on offense are versatile quarterback Hunter McWhirter, playmaking running back Blake Coughenour and an outstanding offensive line that features four returning starters. The Raiders will continue to operate out of a spread attack, but with Coughenour and McWhirter, they may be a little more ground-oriented this fall.
Coughenour - a senior - played in only five games last year after missing time due to a violation of the team conduct code and then tearing his ACL late in the season. He ran for 711 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 71 carries, and had 211 yards and three touchdowns receiving on just eight catches.
“I think Coke (Coughenour) is pretty special,” Luther said. “We got a little bit of him as a sophomore and he was going crazy last year when he had to sit out for awhile — then he tore the ACL. Right now he looks really good. He’s back to 100 percent. He has the potential to be as explosive as anybody (we’ve had). You’ll see the ball in his hands a ton.”
Senior Dalton Birchmier enables CMB to run out of a two-back set. He missed most of last season with an ankle injury, rushing for 57 yards and one touchdown on seven carries.
McWhirter missed four full games and parts of others with injuries last season as a junior. He still completed 53 of 89 passes for 519 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, and added 193 yards and four touchdowns rushing.
Junior Braydon Aker will also see time at quarterback. As a sophomore, he completed 14 of 21 passes for 141 yards with one touchdown and interception apiece.
CMB must replace all-state receiver Brady Stover. But McWhirter and Aker still have talented targets to throw to in Coughenour, tight end Brady Kemp and receivers Travis Lindemoen and Tucker Maxwell.
Kemp caught 21 passes for 170 yards last year as a junior. Lindemoen - a junior - caught 12 passes for 125 yards last fall and Maxwell - a senior - made five grab for 70 yards and one score.
Junior Marcus Mitchell also will figure into the receiving rotation for CMB.
Easily the biggest strength for CMB on offense will be its offensive line. The Raiders return four starters, including all-state tackle Archer McFadden and sophomore tackle Will Clapper, whom Luther says has the most potential of any lineman he’s ever coached.
“No one has seen how good Will can be and I don’t even think he knows how good he can be,” Luther said. “I think Will’s going to be the best lineman we’ve ever had at CMB. We’ve had (Division) 1 kids and D2 kids and he’s going to be the best of all of them.”
The other returning starters for CMB will be senior guards Jason Hillgren and Toren Schultheis. Seniors Caleb Van Zante and Adam Smith will compete for time at center.
“As far as up-front returners, we’ve never been this solid,” Luther said. “We’ve got to stay healthy, but we feel good. We can do a lot of things with those guys up front.”
On defense CMB will go out of a 3-5-3. Due to its depth issues, many of the same faces on offense will have to also carry the load for the Raiders on the defensive side of the ball.
Up front McFadden will occupy the nose guard spot and Clapper and Schultheis will be at defensive end. McFadden had 13.5 tackles and three tackles for loss last fall.
Hillgren will be a hybrid inside rusher at linebacker/end. He had 32.5 stops, nine tackles for loss and two sacks in 2015.
Luther said McWhirter may have been his best linebacker last season when healthy, and he returns at inside backer after picking up 14.5 stops and two sacks last fall. Coughenour made 12 tackles and three tackles for loss last year and he will be back at outside linebacker.
Kemp and Van Zante will also vie for time at inside backer for CMB this fall. Birchmier will be the other outside linebacker.
In the secondary, CMB brings back Maxwell at free safety and junior Ben Gunderson at corner. Maxwell had 18.5 stops and Gunderson intercepted two passes in 2015.
Lindemoen, John Newton and Mitchell also fight for time at the corner spot. Birchmier will spend time at safety.
Nick Leonard and Jack Cheville will also help out CMB on both sides of the ball.
Special teams are currently up in the air. Luther said Coughenour, Maxwell and Mitchell will return kicks, but isn’t sure who will kick or punt.
“We haven’t worked a ton on special teams,” Luther said. “We’ve talked about on-side kicking every time and not punting. We’ve just got to make sure we get some of the fourth downs and recover some of the on-side kicks. We’re only kicking it to the 35, 30 anyway, why not kick it on the ground and try and go cover it. If we can make half of our fourth downs, we seriously may not punt except deep in our end zone and fourth and a ton.”
The new district presents plenty of challenges. Dike-New Hartford — a state semifinalist in 1A last year — and traditional power Aplington-Parkersburg appear to be the favorites going into the season.
“Dike is obviously the team to beat,” Luther said. “They are an unbelievable team. A-P doesn’t have the athletes they had a year ago, but they’ve got a lot of numbers and they’ve got great coaching staff. I wouldn’t go past Roland-Story. I think Roland-Story is going to be much improved.”
West Marshall, East Marshall, Saydel and South Hardin make up the rest of the district.
This season marks a change in the playoff format as it shrinks from 32 teams to 16.
There will be only two automatic qualifiers from each of the seven districts in 2A as opposed to four in previous years. Two wild-card picks will fill in the other two available playoff spots.
CMB opens the season Aug. 26 with a home game against 3A rival Nevada in Maxwell. The Raiders face another former district rival - North Polk - on Sept. 2 in Alleman for its other non-district contest.