SOLON — A rare five-loss season had Solon Coach Kevin Miller re-examining every facet of his program.
Everything from team leadership to strength and conditioning to player development came under close scrutiny in an effort to flip the script for the 2016 season.
“I think our theme has been, ‘Just get back to the things that have made us who we are,’” Miller said. “Where excellence is a tradition. We’re kind of getting back to our roots, if you will. We made some changes and revisions to basically every aspect of our program. Sometimes you don’t excel at the level you want to, I don’t care if it’s the football field or beyond. When you lose, you reflect on the things that you can do better and we’ve kind of changed our method of operation.”
Miller, who begins his 16th season as Solon coach Friday against Class 2A No. 1 Mount Vernon, has plenty of data to draw upon in search of a winning formula for his current bunch. Miller won four state championships at Solon — three in Class 2A and one in 3A — from 2007-10.
After the rivalry game with the top-ranked Mustangs, Solon faces 1A No. 1 Iowa City Regina before beginning district play, which heats up quickly with a visit to Washington (Iowa) Sept. 26. Solon dropped a non-district game against the Demons last season, then enacted some revenge with a 17-14 first-round playoff victory at Washington.
“Three out of the first four games we’re going to find out,” Miller said. “We’re going to be battle-tested so it will be a great challenge and we’re looking forward to it.”
Aside from Washington, the district will be full of opponents largely unfamiliar to the Spartans in Fairfield, Fort Madison, Keokuk, Mount Pleasant, Oskaloosa and West Burlington-Notre Dame. Only Washington had a winning record last season.
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“We’re excited about the opportunity just to bounce back,” senior receiver/defensive back Graeson Dall said. “We’re ready to show everybody what Spartan football is all about and we’re ready to get back to what we do best.”
In addition to two interceptions last season from his defensive back position, Dall provides a valuable weapon for the Spartans’ special teams unit with a 25.8-yard average on 13 kickoff returns and a touchdown.
Senior Blayze Griffis has a firm hold on the starting quarterback spot after splitting time last season with the now-graduated Brandan Childs. Senior Bo Black (219 yards, touchdown in 2015) will be a featured ball carrier for the Spartans, while versatile University of Iowa commit Jacob Coons (10 catches, 233 yards, three touchdowns) provides a 6-foot-4, 218-pound target at tight end for Griffis.
“On the defensive end, he can play D-end, he can put his hand down or he can be in space,” Miller said of Coons. “Offensively, he can play tight end attached, unattached, sometimes flank him out. We’re going to do a lot of different things to try and move him around and get him the ball.”
Black (42 tackles, fumble recovery) and senior Trevor Nelson (four sacks, team-high 61.5 tackles) lead the defense from the linebacker position, while junior Tyler Linderbaum (27.5 tackles, four sacks) joins Coons on the D-line.
“We’re experienced,” Black said. “We’ve got a lot of returners back. We’re faster. I think we’re more physical.”
SOLON AT A GLANCE
• Coach: Kevin Miller (16th year, 149-29)
• Last year: 6-5 (lost to West Delaware, 37-14, in second round of Class 3A playoffs)
• Top returning letterwinners: TE Jacob Coons, sr.; OL/DL Tyler Linderbaum, jr.; LB/RB Trevor Nelson, sr.; WR/DB Graeson Dall, sr.; OL/DL Justin Gibbs, sr.; RB/LB Bo Black, sr.; WR Grant Goldsberry, sr.; RB Kendrick Harris, jr.; WR/DB Austin Kennedy, sr.; OL/DE Jackson Walker, sr.; QB Blayze Griffis, sr.; WR/DB Trevor McGill, sr.; OL/DL Nick Troyer, sr.
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• Key losses: QB Brandan Childs; T/DE Tanner Wymer; DE/RB Spencer Lawson; WR/DB Nathaniel Christensen; WR/DB Halston Durr; WR/DB Matt Roeder; OL Dalton Vislisel; OL Jarod Clevenger.
• Key to making the playoffs: Maneuvering through a new district full of unfamiliar opponents, only Washington (Iowa) had a winning record.
• Games to watch: At Washington (Iowa), Sept. 26. The Spartans and Demons split a pair of meetings last season. Solon dropped the regular-season meeting by two touchdowns, then enacted some revenge with a 17-14 first-round playoff victory. This year’s game should decide the district title.
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