Toward the end of the 2012 football season, big changes were happening on the field for the Pine Tree Pirates.
When the team takes the field this fall, those big changes will be in place, changes that include a new offensive approach and a new place to implement it.
It will be what athletic director/head football coach Derek Fitzhenry calls a ‘new era’ for Pirate football.
Switching from a run-heavy flexbone to a pass-friendly spread offense, Pine Tree will be making the transition in a new stadium, tentatively set to be ready by July pending weather delays, and in time for the football season, according to Fitzhenry.
“It’s a new era and it’s going to be fun,” he said. “I think (the new stadium) motivates them. This is football, it’s exciting and it’s competitive and a lot of that has to do with the excitement that surrounds the game.
“A real nice stadium like we’re going to have makes them proud, I think, they’re ready to defend it.”
After finishing the 2011 season with just 143 total passing yards, Pine Tree began the offensive switch in 2012, finishing with 1,961 yards in the air and 1,788 yards on the ground with 55 percent of their snaps being running plays.
“The game has just evolved, the rules are just geared toward the passing game, it fits better and it’s what people want to see,” Fitzhenry said. “Our kids enjoy it you can practice and work on it easier and getting the ball in the air is exciting and it creates electricity.”
“And the fact that we have a guy that is 6-5, 220 pounds that can throw the football and it appears to me that we have other guys coming through that can throw too, it’s just the right thing to do.”
Caleb Chumley, who has been highly recruited from schools across the country, racked up 832 yards – 42 percent of the season total – in the final 2 1/2 games of the 2012 season and will assume the starting quarterback role under the new offense.
But the big man won’t be the Pirates’ only option.
Dalvin Manns, who went out with a knee injury last season, has the potential to see time at quarterback as well, according to Fitzhenry.
“Chumley has some real talent and Dalvin does too and he can throw the ball well,” he said. “And another good thing, they both can line up at receiver and catch the ball, so whoever not the quarterback will be lined up to catch, it’s just nice to have some depth at quarterback.”
Mason Hays will return as a main target in the Pirates’ passing attack after leading Pine Tree in 2012 with 777 yards and six touchdowns in the air. Hayes – a second-team all-district selection in 14-4A – averaged 24 yards per reception in 2012 as a sophomore.
Jonathan Giddings will also be a weapon down the field after averaging 18 yards per catch this past season.
Pine Tree hasn’t completely abandoned the running game and Fitzhenry said his staff is looking at several possible candidates to fill the Pirates’ backfield.
“We’ve definitely been developing the run game as well,” he said. “We’re going to run some pistol so we can get in some power stuff. We’re looking at out tailback right now and we’ve got some guys blossoming right now that can run the football.”
The offensive switch isn’t just happening at the varsity level either as the staff works to develop quarterbacks under Chumley and Manns, both of whom will be seniors next year.
“The toughest think about this is to make sure you do it on all levels and focus on the small stuff like the shotgun snap, you’ve got to make sure that everything is taken care of,” Fitzhenry said. “It has to do with our personnel that we have and again it’s just the state of the game, you’ve got to get the ball down the field quick and score some points quick because everyone else is going to do that.”
Despite not having a full spring practice this year, Fitzhenry said that the offseason has been a successful one.
From a successful boot camp, the Pirates are now focused on 7-on-7 football, which kicks off in early June.
“That will be a huge boost for us, we’ve always done 7-on-7 but we’re putting a big emphasis on it this time,” Fitzhenry said. “We’re looking at being in a league with Longview and will probably hit four different tournaments. Our kids are really starting to get it and enjoy it.”
The program will benefit both the quarterbacks and receivers as they prepare for two-a-days and the season in August.
Not only will 7-on-7 boost the offense, it will give the secondary to put in some work throughout the summer. Pine Tree had seven interceptions this past season.
“It’s what we need to do – not only throwing and catching – but defending,” Fitzhenry said. “Working on back peddling, working on defending and other things that will come into play during the season because we’re going to be seeing the pass a lot.”
Also this summer, the Pirate staff will conduct their Speed Weight Agility Program (SWAP) after a successful showing this past summer, where the staff has two hours a day compared to 35 minutes during the school year.
“We averaged around 200 kids a day throughout the summer last year, focusing on functional strength, speed and agility,” Fitzhenry said. “It’s four days a week over six weeks so you can really have an impact on a kid. They’ve done a great job with that summer program.”
With six returners offensively and six or seven on defense, the Pirates will be looking to experience to make all the changes easy ones as they begin the football season.
“It’s a big factor with those kids coming back,” Fitzhenry said. “But the biggest of all is the work ethic, these kids are putting in the time and earning the right to win – it’s a cliché but if you’re working hard, you’re earning the right and they’re doing that.”
With the work ethic in place through spring training, 7-on-7 and summer workouts, Fitzhenry has one goal for his team and it’s one that they’ve discussed together.
“I want us to go out there every game, and all 11 guys play at their highest level, play hard, play with great effort every play, every down, every one of them,” he said. “That may sound simple but it’s what our expectation is and something that we’ve talked about. Sounds like it’s an easy deal but that’s something we haven’t done – let the rest take care of itself, we’re going for exceptional effort.”
With the change in offense and the move to a new stadium, there is still much to look at when it comes to play on the new field, but, for now, the Pirates are entering a new era.
“We’ve got a lot of things to work at still and some of that stuff you can’t work on until you have some contact and those are the things that you try to create an attitude about and determination fills into that area,” Fitzhenry said. “As for the stadium, it’s going to be very college-esque and as an athlete, you just see the ambiance of it all, you see and feel that atmosphere, it’s going to be a great thing.
“And it’s surrounded by pine trees, and that just wraps it up nicely.”
(Follow Hayden Henry on Twitter: @hayden_h)