LOGAN — There are tangible and intangible ways to evaluate a team’s improvement and, ultimately, its success.
The most tangible way, of course, is in wins... something the Logan Chieftains have done in back-to-back games for the first time in nearly three years.
The intangibles are oftentimes not nearly as easy to spot with the naked eye... but for those who have closely followed the 2019 Chiefs, they have been most recognizable.
“I think we’re closer to where we would expect to be if this was a typical season,” said first-year head coach Mike Eddy as the Chieftains (2-4) return home to take on Zanesville (5-1) Friday night for their first home game in three weeks. “As far as the way we’re playing right now, I think this is where you expect your kids to be playing.
“If you compare where we started to where we are now, I think (the improvement has been) in leaps and bounds. The difference is shocking,” he continued. “If you go back and put (the season opener at Tri-Valley) on film up on the wall, you’re probably not going to recognize that team. We’re not that team anymore.
“The experiences of this year, and the experience they’ve had in prior seasons, all those things build to give you an opportunity to be who you are.”
The Chiefs are beginning to forge an identity as they enter Friday’s matchup (7 p.m. in Logan Chieftain Stadium) with the Blue Devils.
They are a team that plays hard and with a tremendous amount of heart while learning both how to win and how to overcome adversity — both tangible and intangible things that go hand-in-hand — with an excellent running game, a quarterback who can run or pass and manages the game well, and a solid defense.
“We talk about accountability, character, courage and toughness,” Eddy said, “and the definition we use for toughness is ‘adversity isn’t meant to be punishment, it’s an opportunity for you to become who you were meant to be.’ All the adversity they’ve experienced is there to mold you, to build you, to create an opportunity for you to be something more, and I think they’ve done a really good job of being able to focus that negative energy, that adversity, into improving themselves as players and more so as a team.
“And I think probably been the biggest change (as the season has progressed) has been in how they treat one another and how they relate to one another,” he added. “That’s a place where I’ve seen one of the biggest improvements.”
The Chieftains admittedly didn’t handle adversity well in starting out the season with four-straight losses — resulting in an all-time program-low 11-game losing streak — but, in wins over Chillicothe and Athens, they did.
“That’s true. We were in very similar situations in the first four games and did not respond well,” Eddy said. “Had we responded differently, we probably win those games, or at least two of them. But we didn’t respond that way.
“It’s one of those things you just never know when it’s going to start to make sense for them and you don’t know for sure if the lesson has been learned,” he added. “Just like anything, sometimes you have a little step backwards here and there, but you can see that consistent growth. I think it is starting to make sense to them now that if we do things in this manner the chances of us being successful are greater (and) if we do things in this (other) way, our chances of failure are greater.”
It’s all part of the process, Eddy pointed out, of players under the direction of a first-year head coach learning to understand the program and his system.
“I think they’re starting to see that picture, that if more of us are doing the right things, the better the chances of winning,” Eddy said, “where before I don’t know that they ever gave it much thought. (Maybe) they didn’t understand. That part didn’t make any sense to them: we’re just going to go out and practice football.
“Well, I don’t want you to just practice football,” Eddy has told his team, “I want you to learn how to be successful and winners at football. There’s a difference, and not just out there going through the motions because you like to play the game.
“We want you to enjoy the game, but there’s a lot more to it than that. And I think that’s beginning to make more sense to them. There’s been so much growth individually and as a team in general.”
The Blue Devils will be an excellent yardstick by which to measure how much the Chieftains have grown. Although Jackson (6-0) is undefeated and Sheridan is also 5-1, the Blue Devils are — at least arguably — the toughest and most-talented team on Logan’s 2019 slate.
Zanesville’s offense resembles that of Athens, whom the Chieftains routed 46-20 last Friday by scoring 32 unanswered points and — not arguably — getting a few breaks when, on four different occasions, Bulldog receivers got behind the Logan secondary and either dropped or were overthrown on what looked to be sure touchdown passes.
The Chiefs made some on-the-fly schematic defensive changes and didn’t give the home team those kind of opportunities in the second half when it was first-team Athens offense vs. first-team Logan defense.
“The difference (on offense is that) Zanesville wants to run the ball a little bit more and has the ability to do it,” Eddy revealed. “When Athens wants to run the ball it’s their quarterback, whereas Zanesville can line up and run the football. They’ll bring a tight end set in, they’ll bring two running backs in, and if they want to, they’ll try to run the football for a little while. Although that’s not who they really are this year, they have the ability to do it.
“Their quarterback (senior Ben Everson) is slightly different in that he’s a scramble-to-throw instead of a scramble-to-run guy,” Eddy continued, “so when he breaks contain his eyes are still downfield. He is a talented-enough player to run the ball on you, but that’s not what he looks to do. That’s kind of a last resort for him. They’re going to run a lot of empty backfield, some four-receiver sets to one side so you’ll have quads that creates its own set of coverage situations and try to out-man you.”
Said Eddy: “They have a lot of great kids in space. It’s like we talked about last week with Athens: the hardest thing we ask kids to do is cover wide receivers and tackle in space. Zanesville has a good group of wide receivers who have the ability to make guys miss and turn 10-yard plays into 40-yard plays. We’ll have to do a good job to keep stuff in front of us and rally to the ball and not have guys out on an island.”
Eddy says the Devils will offer a number of different looks on defense.
“They like to be in a 3-4 defense, but we’ve seen them against other teams when they’ve had a little trouble stopping the run going to a four-man front as their base,” the Logan coach pointed out. “Their defense is going to be a little bit everywhere. A 3-4 is a nice defense because of its versatility so they can walk those linebackers up so it looks like a five-man front at times.”
Meanwhile, the Chieftain offense the Blue Devils will face is still mainly a running game but getting better and better when it comes to balance.
“This team flourishes in the down-hill run game — that’s who they are — and with a couple of us (coaches) being new to these guys and not coached them, it’s taken us a little long to identify what their strengths are as a group and what they’re good at,” Eddy said. “Now we have a better understanding.
“Moving forward we shouldn’t have that kind of an issue because we’ll have coached these guys year after year,” he continued, “and as they’re moving up through (the program) you know who they are, what they’re good at and the things they like to do. It’s all part of the growing pains of a year-one” of a new program.
Offensively, the Chieftains began to hit their stride when junior running back Caden McCarty (576 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground) and senior quarterback Braeden Spatar (439 rushing yards, one TD) began to find holes behind an ever-improving offensive line and started picking up yardage in chunks of four, five and six yards and not playing behind the sticks.
And Spatar (376 yards passing with two TD aerials) has completed 63.3 percent of his passes, helping keep opposing defenses off-balance since game two against Teays Valley.
“I think a lot of it comes back to us as play-callers understanding the game situation and, as we’ve said a couple times, throwing the ball when you want to and not because you have to,” Eddy said. “I think that’s important. That’s what we’ve been able to do. We haven’t had to wait until third-and-15 when everybody in the stands knows what you’re doing.
“We have to mix in some pass and take more advantage of the play-action passing game so we can marry the run and the pass together,” he added. “Again, we’re not a drop-back passing team, so on first and second down throwing play-action is important because now the defense is not honoring that pass; they’re playing heavy on the run and it makes that read a little bit easier.”
As a result, the Chiefs have been better able to take advantage of Spatar’s unique skill-set behind center.
“Moving the pocket and not taking a traditional three-step drop and sit in the pocket and try to read the entire field has been important too,” Eddy pointed out, and “rolling (Spatar) out to the right and left. In my opinion, he throws a better ball on the run than he does standing still.
“He feels more comfortable when he’s moving,” he continued, “and you also just cut the field in half so you’re looking at one to two reads. It also gives him the ability to pull the ball down and run, which is something he likes to do and plays into his skill-set. A combination of those things has helped our pass game.”
Not to mention the offense in general has begun to mature… both players and coaches.
“Not only as the players begin to understand the schematics more, our coaches are understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our players more in calling plays that build upon and utilize their strengths and not put them in as many uncomfortable situations,” Eddy noted. “When this season started, I never thought that you’d see (the Chiefs use) a tight end formation… (but) the last two weeks we’ve been running not one, but two tight ends, and that comes down to us understanding the skill-set of our players and what as a group we’re comfortable doing.”
Barring last-minute issues, the Chiefs enter Friday night’s game in relatively good physical shape. And it’ll be all hands on deck against the Blue Devils.
Eddy credits trainer Janelle Jones, who “does a tremendous job with those guys throughout the course of the week, doing treatment and rehab and taking care of them making sure come Friday night they’re as healthy as they can be,” he lauded.
“Up to this point those guys who have nursing those nagging injuries have been able to go out and perform,” he continued. “We’ve been very blessed so far as that goes. We have lost a couple kids to some long-term injuries, but they’ve been very few and fortunately we’ve had guys be able to step into those roles and continue to go.”
With the season nearly two-thirds complete, and the season’s finish line just over three weeks away, the season has reached its point where both games and practices become both physical and mental grinds.
“We didn’t practice well last week (prior to the Athens game). I just didn’t feel like we were prepared,” Eddy said. “Because we knew we weren’t quite ready, and/or we were just mentally or physically exhausted — not seeing that success you want to see, that weighs on you and it’s a grind — we told them ‘you have to lean on each other.’ This is the time where team becomes important.
“You’re not just out there by yourself playing a game,” he continued. “Everybody has to lean on everybody, strengthen each other and build each other up, pick a guy up when he falls down and bring him back to the ground when he’s getting too big. That’s what team does. We have to be there to support each other when we need it.”
The last two games have been prime examples of that.
“They did a great job of playing team football and starting to understand what it means to be a member of a team and that it’s not just 11 guys wearing the same jersey,” Eddy said. “There’s quite a difference there.”
For the Chiefs, that’s been the tangible difference between 0-4 and 2-4.