By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
With just four seniors on the roster and 21 players total, 2019 was a rebuilding season for the Aurora football team under head coach Craig Weldy.
The Houn Dawgs went 1-9 and ended their season with a 48-6 loss to Cassville, the eventual Class 3 state runner up.
“It was a tough year,” Weldy said. “We knew we were going to be battling numbers.”
“We were a very young team and it was a tough year but our kids were resilient and stayed with it,” he said. “In the long run I felt like it was successful in that our kids just never quit and just kept battling. They had a great attitude, understood the challenges and met them in a very mature way.”
Aurora lost four all-conference players to graduation. Conner Shaw and Jay Lee were second team Big 8 East linebackers, Clayton Cordova was an honorable mention Big 8 East offensive tackle and Lee was an honorable mention Big 8 East quarterback.
Shaw made 102 tackles and had three sacks. Lee added 66 tackles on defense and rushed for 573 yards and passed for 1,026 yards offensively with seven total touchdowns.
Weldy said the leadership of Lee and Shaw, who also played center, would be hard to replace.
“Those two young men were just great leaders for us and obviously Jay, our quarterback for two years, he was a huge part of the successes that we had,” he said. “Even in losses you can have successful moments.”
Cordova, a 6-5, 250-pound lineman on both sides of the ball, provided the Houn Dawgs some much-needed size up front. He is playing collegiately at Missouri Southern.
The good news for Aurora in 2020 is the team returns at least 15 players who started or saw extended varsity playing time. Nine of them are juniors and two are sophomores.
“We only have four returning seniors that were starters but we have picked up some more kids,” Weldy said. “In a way we’re going to be a more experienced football team. What has helped us in the preparation is our young kids understand what it takes to compete in the Big 8 and they’ve hit the weight room and dedicated to that. They’ve worked hard so far in the time we’ve got to have with them in these times.”
And the team’s overall numbers have also increased, from 21 a year ago to at least 37 this fall. Weldy hopes a few more might join once school starts.
Offensively Aurora feels more like a veteran group this year. The team returns virtually everyone on the line except Cordova and everyone in the backfield except Lee. Junior Aaron Fisher, who last played as a freshman, figures to take over at quarterback. Junior Ian Jackson, a fullback, is back and looking good after suffering a knee injury in week four last fall. He had rushed 27 times for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Kohl Rohlman returns at running back after racking up 380 rushing yards, 309 receiving yards and five total touchdowns.
“He has great speed at running back and is a hard runner,” Weldy said.
The lone senior in the backfield is Brody Sims, a second team Big 8 East running back as a junior. He rushed for 325 yards, had 317 yards receiving and scored three touchdowns.
“He’s really dedicated himself to the weight room and become a really solid leader for us,” Weldy said. “Our backfield we feel is pretty complete in those four.
Everyone returning on the line started at their position at least half the games last year.
Seniors Dwight Jung (5-7, 195) and Noah Lamb (5-10, 160) are battling for the starting spot at center. Senior Dalton Cline (5-11, 210) will probably play one of the tackles. Junior Kyle Anderson (6-1, 185) will play guard and junior Felix Barrientos (6-0, 210) will be the other tackle. Junior Ryan Clark (5-11, 205) has returned from a knee injury and will play tight end. Sophomore Ethan Husmann (6-2, 217) started at tackle last year and could play at guard this fall. Sophomore Jackson Cline (5-8, 186) is also vying for a spot at guard.
“We feel like our offense is going to be a veteran group even though we are young, we’re going to be juniors and sophomores, we really feel like we’ve got a veteran group coming back,” Weldy said.
Clark could be attached to the line of scrimmage or spread out as a receiver in the team’s flexbone offense. On the other side several players are vying to play receiver. Among them are juniors Caleb Wittenborn (43 yards receiving) and Brendon Hall (35 yards receiving), who will also see time at running back and is the team’s backup quarterback. Juniors Cameron Savage and Jacob Jordan (147 yards receiving) will also play at tight end. Newcomer Gavin Youngblood, a junior who last played in junior high, is also battling for a spot.
“Our overall team speed is better than it was last year,” Weldy said. “Our quickness is better but right now, after two days of really being together and what few plays we’ve installed we look very crisp and our line really looks – coach Kyle Doss, our line coach, has done a great job putting those guys together and getting them ready.”
“We’re very thin in numbers still, we can get even younger in a hurry with a few injuries,” he said. “The big thing is we need to stay healthy and bring some younger guys up as we go to be our number two’s and three’s.”
Defensively the Houn Dawgs will feature many of the same faces.
Cline (24 tackles) is vying for a spot at defensive end, as are Anderson (17 tackles) and Barrientos (37 tackles, 2.5 sacks). At linebacker the team has Sims (48 tackles), Clark (25 tackles), Jackson (34 tackles) and Savage (50 tackles). Hall (21 tackles) will start at corner and Rohlman (61 tackles) has moved from strong safety to corner. Caleb Wittenborn (31 tackles) and Youngblood are also vying for corner spots. Fisher will play at free safety, Lamb (41 tackles) will be at strong safety and Jordan (16 tackles) also has experience at linebacker and defensive end. Jackson Cline (19 tackles) and Husmann (6 tackles) look to play at defensive tackle.
“One of the things that hurt us last year was youth and inexperience and so we feel like we are going to be a better defensive unit than we were last year by leaps and bounds,” Weldy said. “We must stop the run but we’re going to be bigger up front and we feel like our overall team speed is faster so we feel like we can get to the football and also be able to hold our ground at the line of scrimmage and that’s going to be huge for us if we can win the battle at the line of scrimmage. We must stop the big play. It hurt us a lot last year but when you’ve got young and inexperienced and tired kids, these kids never came off the field but we feel like we can substitute more and be a little bit fresher.”
Fisher will likely be the team’s kicker and punter and has looked good at those spots in offseason workouts. Rohlman also serves as a rugby-style punter who is a threat to run the ball. Lamb, Dalton Cline and Jackson Cline have all been getting reps as long snapper.
Weldy, entering his fourth year at the helm, hopes this is the season Aurora turns a corner. The Houn Dawgs haven’t had a winning season since 2015. The team’s junior class went undefeated in junior varsity play in the Big 8 East as freshmen, only losing to Cassville and Lamar.
“We feel like this should be a year that we can kind of make a comeback and have a better showing,” Weldy said. “We’re going to go out on that field believing we can win every game. This group has that mental process that they believe they can win, they expect to win and again attitude and the mental capacity is so important.”
Weldy said that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s had to convince his players they’re preparing for a season and not for “a big disappointment.” One reason the team’s numbers aren’t higher is there are some kids wary of putting in all the practice time for a season that may not happen.
“That’s a tough argument to go against other than you’ve got to prepare for the future like it’s going to be a positive,” he said.