FARMINGTON – Head football coach Erik Kruppe and his staff at Farmington encountered plenty of teachable moments last season with the youngest varsity roster of his 11-year tenure.
He is hoping that the lessons learned through the adversity of a 4-7 season will prove beneficial as the Knights seek to reverse their fortunes through perseverance.
Although those four victories came against competition with a combined seven wins, Farmington did push SEMO North rivals Cape Central and Poplar Bluff with chances to steal late leads.
“We didn’t have a big senior class, but were fortunate enough to have a lot of young kids who were physically mature beyond their years,” Kruppe said. “So they could step up and be varsity contributors.
“Those kids worked hard, and in many of our games, were right in them in the fourth quarter. That provided valuable experience that they otherwise would not have now. For our juniors and seniors, this is not their first rodeo.”
Farmington should see immediate progress within a defense that was often outsized and allowed more than 42 points per game during its seven losses.
Two linemen and all three linebackers are battle tested and can perform as two-way players. Junior and three-year starter Kaesen McClain is shifting from an end to anchor the second level.
Seniors Luke Birkner and Bryce Kathcart will work the trenches while sophomore newcomers Scott Fripp and Mason Probst are projected to join them.
Another three-year starter, Gabe Giuliani, is an aggressive hitter moving up from safety with a healthy Damian Cabrera bringing similar experience at the opposite side.
“Defensively, we lost a couple of good linebackers and an end, but I am pleasantly surprised at how their replacements have looked as well,” Kruppe said.
The projected secondary consists strictly of underclassmen. Brett Drye could be a top cover cornerback in the area according to his coach, and is joined by Connor Rice, Ian Zohner and Tatum Tinsley.
That unit will eventually be challenged to cover expansive areas of turf. The final two opponents of the regular season in particular, Festus and Central, feature all-state Division I recruits at receiver.
“You look at the known commodities on the schedule, and there’s no doubt that we are going to face some great athletes every year,” Kruppe said. “It’s all about having an understanding of what your assignment is and confidence that you’re just as good as the person you’re going against. If we go into those situations with the proper mindset, then I’m excited to see what we can do.”
Zohner and Cabrera are involved in the punting and kicking duties, and the Knights have a plethora of athletic candidates to specialize on returns.
The most obvious visible change when Farmington debuts this season against rival North County will be the implementation of a less condensed offensive scheme.
The tightly-packed flexbone look, a longtime staple of the program, has been scrapped for a more balanced approach after the Knights passed only sparingly.
With split ends replacing wingbacks and lining up farther away from the tackles, the opportunity exists to develop a quick passing attack in rhythm while maintaining a strong running threat.
Drye will start at quarterback again after operating the triple option as a sophomore. Despite the new wrinkles offensively, Farmington is expected to affirm its hard-nosed identity.
“There are changes in formations and sets, but our bread and butter is still being physical at the line of scrimmage and running some option concepts,” Kruppe said.
McClain became a breakout star upon his arrival as a freshman, and has spearheaded the ground game as the Knights’ leading rusher in back-to-back seasons.
While his total number of carries could decrease from previous workhorse levels, the available space to break free can increase behind effective blocking.
Ayden Saunders anchors a stronger offensive line with seniors Birkner and Kathcart. Corey Crawford and Fripp give Farmington a starting front that ranges from 230-240 pounds across.
After years of having a single receiver lined up wide, the Knights are considering at least five players as key targets for Drye under the new system.
Giuliani and Rice have established themselves as likely slot choices. Rhett Kauflin, Sam Woodson and Zohner offer some speed and depth along the perimeter.
“The receivers have worked hard to become more proficient with new routes,” Kruppe said. “We were completing our screens at 100 percent in summer camp… Brett has really taken a step forward. To see his development on the track and bringing that to the football field has been very impressive.”
With the exception of a home game against conference power Jackson in week 3, the schedule lines up favorably for Farmington to work through any early struggles over its first five games.
Week 2 opponent Potosi faces a similar roster overhaul to North County. Sikeston finished 1-9 last year, and independent TDW Prep was winless in abbreviated action.
“Most competitive games come down to five or six plays,” Kruppe said. “Going into this season, we have to make sure on those critical downs and game-changing plays that our team executes the best.”