Indians looking to build upon success of 2016

Things went fairly well for School of the Osage in 2016.

The Indians got off to a hot start with six straight wins, finished 9-2 and earned a second place finish in the Tri-County Conference. However, the team was not exactly satisfied with the end result as a season full of potential came to a conclusion with a loss in the district semifinals.

In 2017, Osage is hoping to turn the tide by not taking anything for granted. While some teams may be thinking about playoff football in November, the focus at Osage will be one play, one down and one game at a time.

“I think last year as a team we allowed ourselves to look forward a little bit in the future. I don’t know if it was something as a staff we did differently or if it was something the players did differently, but that was something we discussed this offseason in the winter, with our seniors,” Johnson explained to Game Night. “They felt like people kind of expected something to happen that did not happen and they were maybe not prepared for situations as thoroughly as they would have if it was a different team or whatever.

“This year we just really need to continue to focus on each play, each rep, each day and just constant improvement. Not worrying about who is across from us or who we are playing on Friday night, but just knowing that if we take care of us, the scoreboard will take care of itself,” the coach added.

Indeed, the focus on making improvements every single day is the theme for this year’s version of Osage football and Johnson calls it “Winning The Day.” First comes accountability which requires attendance and doing what is supposed to be done. Second is bringing a positive attitude and the third requirement is giving great effort.

“We feel like as a program if we can do those three things every day we are gong to see improvement every day,” Johnson noted. “We always believe that you are not staying the same. You are going to get a little bit better or a little bit worse, so hopefully our guys get a little bit better every day this year.”

The path to success always begins with hard work in the offseason and the coach said his group took a good initial first step.

“We have got a little bit more commitment and this year is no different,” Johnson said of the progression the program has made over the past few years. “We averaged more players in the weight room this summer than we have since I’ve been here. Every year we try to find new things and new ways to make it exciting, fun and competitive.”

Time will soon tell if those efforts transition well to the field, but one thing for certain is that the Indians will not be lacking any veteran leadership as many weapons from last year’s team will be back in action. Overall, Osage returns 18 lettermen that include eight offensive starters and five defensive starters.

The Indians’ multiple pro set offense will be led by the 6-foot-4 gunslinger Zach Wheeler who returns for his senior season after a year that saw him put up 1,946 passing yards and 21 touchdowns and earn All-Conference honors.

Taking the handoffs will be senior workhorse Nick Riley who earned 1st Team All-Conference and All-District honors by rushing for 909 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. Through the air, Wheeler will have 6-foot-3 senior wideout Drake Gaines who hauled in an impressive 37 receptions for 585 yards and six touchdowns along with the speedy Dalton Depeé who Johnson describes as having “big play potential” and rightly so after rushing for 89 yards, receiving another 205 yards and putting up eight total touchdowns in 2016.

The returning “Blackfeet” on the offensive line who will be counted upon to protect Wheeler and help move the chains are a quartet of seniors in Honorable Mention All-Conference Kevin Weatherspoon, Chris Halsell, Alex Bradley and Gage Swofford, who Johnson describes as the “strongest player on the team.” Together, the four average 256 pounds and history shows they know how to help march the ball downfield as the Indians averaged 184 rushing yards, 181 passing yards and 33.7 points per contest last season.

“We have been lucky the last few years to have multiple threats on the offensive side of the ball and this year will be no different where you will see three or four people carry the ball and catch the ball each game,” Johnson told Mid-Missouri Pigskin Preview. “We have many weapons, which makes our team harder to defend and as a staff we look forward to using the players we have in different ways.”

On the defensive side of the ball, the strength comes from the linebacker and secondary group who return the most experience from a 3-3 stack formation that allowed 108 rushing yards, 84 passing yards and 19.8 points per game in 2016.

The returning linebackers feature senior tackling machine Austin Magnuson (137 total tackles, 10 tackles for a loss) who led the team in tackles last season and earned 1st Team All-Conference, 1st Team All-District and Class 3 3rd Team All-State honors. Joining him will be Depeé who also has a nose for the ball after putting up 88 total tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and two sacks in 2016. Depeé also recorded two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown respectively.

The secondary will be anchored by senior three-year starter Ian Riley who was a ballhawk at defensive back with a team-leading five interceptions to go with 65 total tackles. At safety will be his cousin and fellow senior Nick Riley (85 total tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries) who was a wrecking ball as well.

The Osage defensive will be fairly young, but their attitude and style should remain the same no matter who is on the field. After four years of running the same system, Johnson said the defense has gotten better each season and the veterans know exactly what is expected of them. They will also have the incentive to break the school record for turnovers again after accomplishing the feat last year.

“Our defense is simple and aggressive. We do not put too much pressure on our guys to think and try to make plays that are not theirs to make,” Johnson explained to Mid-Missouri Pigskin Preview. “We believe in an aggressive, swarming defense… This year could be a year that they take off with it.”

While there is plenty of reason to be excited, the Osage head man said there is still a lot of work to be done and one of the keys will be to stay healthy, but also build depth to shore up any weaknesses at any single position. Overall, success will be determined by how hungry the team stays over the course of the year and Johnson looks forward to how this year’s seniors will set the tempo.

“As coaches we really try to set the foundation and expectations, but honestly each individual season replicates what the seniors’ leadership role is,” Johnson told Game Night. “If they demand success, if they demand focus, demand discipline and demand attention to detail, then that is what they are going to get and it is going to carry over to good things on Friday night. If they allow a lack of focus or all those bad characteristics, then those things will carry over. It is always fun for me to see the senior leaders and how they take the reigns of the program and push it in the direction they want to go.”

Osage will soon choose that direction when they open up the season at Fulton on August 18 at 7 p.m.