2018 record: 2-8
Quote of the summer: “It’s a park fight. I think (my team) is the type that if you play against them you’ll know it. We’re never going to be the most athletic, but we’re a physical bunch. Other people are going to feel it the next day. We’re not afraid to run at anybody. We need to be able to throw the ball more, but we also know we’re still going to whack the ball against teams that stick nine in the box.” — West Ouachita head coach Matt Middleton.
Overview: Matt Middleton knows the drill. Year three is make-or-break for every coach. Middleton’s spread experiment in year one didn’t work, and after trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, Middleton constructed his offense based off of the personnel he had at West Ouachita in year two. The Chiefs were bullish. And though the Chiefs had only two wins to show for it, West Ouachita averaged six yards a pop on the ground against stacked fronts. That’s something to build on.
The Chiefs were successful running the football after losing potential star tailback Luke Middleton before the season followed by star tailback Tobias Owens in district play.
No excuses for year three. West Ouachita has to stay healthy, and Middleton has changed his practices to try and ensure the Chiefs do so for what will be a challenging season.
“This will go one of two ways,” Middleton said. “It can get you over the hump, which is where I think we’re headed. We need some things to go right early. But it can also go the other way if things don’t go well early. I think we’re there. We just have to go do it.”
Offense: Because West Ouachita returns a wealth of experience in the backfield, the Chiefs strength will once again be the running game. Owens rushed for more than 1,200 yards last year, despite missing action during district games with an injury. He will return to head up a stable with bruiser Alfred Cole beside him. Luke Middleton and Kohl Nolan will also see some playing time in the backfield, though Matt Middleton would like to save them more for the defensive side of the football.
“They’ll take some reps back there, but they could start many other places,” Middleton said. “The reality is we have a very talented backfield.”
The guys blocking in front aren’t too bad either. Led by offensive tackle Chandler Simpson and center Michael Bohn, who return as starters, high expectations remain for a unit that pushed opponents around with a somewhat one-dimensional game last year. Tackle Blake Balsamo and guard Cameron Smith are expected to start up front, while Tim Andrajack and Thomas Wink will battle it out for the vacant guard position.
“We know we have to throw the football better this year,” Middleton said. “The goal is to throw it more, and we’ll never go back to my background where we’re throwing it 40 times a game. We need to be able to throw it 15 to 20 times a game and be consistent in our completion percentage.”
Tasked with improving the passing game will be new starting quarterback Brady Ryals. Ryals athleticism fits the mold of West Ouachita’s ground-and-pound attack, but Middleton said he’s had a strong summer throwing the football.
“He’s stepped up,” Middleton said. “He throws the ball really well.”
Luke Staggs will handle the placekicking duties for the Chiefs.
Defense: Middleton’s takeover on defense was the biggest story of the spring for the Chiefs. Switching to a 4-3 defense and moving some players over while also having key veteran defenders switch roles has completely remodeled this unit.
The mainstay on defense last year was Montana King, who will be transitioning from linebacker to the defensive line. And Middleton can’t stop talking about the spring King had.
“He had a phenomenal spring,” Middleton said. “It fits his size and weight better. He moves extremely well up front.”
Devin Butler will return on the defensive line alongside him with Clay Norris starting at the other defensive end spot. Inside, Middleton will use what he likes to call wholesale groups. Cameron Batey and Andrajack will see some action. The goal is to stay fresh and constantly rotate capable big bodies.
The back seven will feature fresh faces galore. Among those will be Luke Middleton, who will take over middle linebacker duties. Luke Middleton suffered a season-ending injury before the season last fall, which was one of many injuries the Chiefs endured in 2018. Owens will line up at outside linebacker beside him with Dawson Hagan manning the “Sam” (strong-side) linebacker position.
Cole Moore and Nolan will start at safety in the secondary, while Middleton tries to find his men at corner. Dylan Williams, Mike Hall and Brandon Green are all battling.
District outlook: Year three is typically the year most coaches see the biggest jump, but most coaches don’t jump from a struggling District 2-4A (aside from Neville) to an impressive 2-5A district.
District 2-5A gets better by the year and is expected to make another jump with Alexandria Senior High’s emergence. Ruston and Ouachita flirt with taking out the big dog, West Monroe, and many feel ASH might have the star power necessary to get the job done in 2019. ASH has two of the Top 12 prospects in the state, according to 247 Sports.
Meanwhile, Ruston and Ouachita are always athletic with immense speed, and West Ouachita isn’t going to win any foot races on the football field. Middleton’s best bet is to have his players roll up their sleeves and play keep-away with that physical offense of his.