BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Fort Madison Head Coach Derek Doherty knows even though the faces may be the same, the West Burlington Falcons are an improved football team.
The two kick off the season Friday night at Jim Youel Field with Fort Madison holding wins the past two years over the Falcons. Senior night activities are set for 6 p.m. with kick-off at 7 p.m.
Fort Madison has won three in a row including a 26-14 win last year on the road. The Bloodhounds blew out the Falcons 46-0 in 2018 at home and won 21-17 in 2017.
But it may be Fort Madison that’s in the rebuilding process in a 2020 season that for the most part hasn’t been incumbered too heavily by the coronavirus.
“The unique thing here is that it’s pretty much a brand new team,” Doherty said of the Bloodhounds Wednesday.
“We’ve been evaluating how our practices are going and seeing progress throughout all our guys, which is a great thing. But how competitive we’ll be… we have no idea.”
The Hounds only return three starters on offense including senior quarterback Will Larson, senior left tackle Ethan Deacon, and senior slot receiver senior Brock Califf.
Larson through for 10 touchdowns last year and rushed for six more for the 4-5 Hounds. Fort Madison has a recent history of coming out of the gate strong including a 3-1 start in 2019, but dropped their last three games of the year.
Deacon will anchor the Hounds offensive line and Doherty is sure to capitalize on Califf’s athleticism in various offensive sets.
Offensive Coordinator Justin Menke will also drop in junior Tate Johnson, senior Calem Maclearn and junior Jakob McGowan in skill positions. McGowan was banged up last year, but Doherty said he’s looking for big things from junior.
“We’re happy to have a guy like McGowan back and healthy. He adds a good piece to the offense,” Doherty said.
“We’re returning a QB that understands the offense and the changes we’ve made and we’ve got an athletic line. I’m just really excited with a good group of dudes and we’re excited to see where we go.”
Senior newcomer Cole Thornton, who Doherty said is a special athlete, will also see time in the Hounds receiving corp as will junior Austin Ensminger. Other Hounds vying for action on the offensive line will be senior Levi Lowney, sophomore Mateo Lozano, junior Cuyrin Ross, senior Bryce Britton, senior Chance Decker, and junior Matthew Moore.
West Burlington’s offense could be something the Hounds haven’t seen in the past two years. Sophomore quarterback Hayden Vandenberg, who came in the second quarter and threw for a touchdown in last year’s game will be in the backfield again this year.
Vandenberg backed up junior Anthony Hoffman as signal caller, who threw for a touchdown but ran for 339 yards and four touchdowns.
Vandenberg also led the Falcons in tackles from his linebacker spot with 37.5 as a freshman. West Burlington just had four sacks last year and had 21 tackles for losses, but 10 came from senior Travis Wills who’s lost to graduation.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Hounds are in slightly better shape with four returning starters including Maclearn at corner, Johnson at strong safety, Larson at free safety and Keaton Poe at inside linebacker.
Doherty said the Hounds will fill with Deacon, Lozano, Ross, Lowney and Britton on the line. Sophomore Tanner Settles and McGowan will handle the middle with Poe, while Califf helps anchor the secondary at corner.
Britton and Larson each had 36 tackles last year. Six of Britton’s tackles were for losses and Lowney had a sack and three tackles for losses. Poe and Johnson each had a couple picks last year.
“We’ve got dude’s that like to stick there nose in there and we’re excited about that. Jakob is really a physical kid and our DBs aren’t afraid to come flying in,” Doherty said.
Doherty said the Falcons have grown a lot and the kids that were making plays last year have matured. The two teams haven’t seen each other and haven’t shared any video this year due to the craziness of the preseason.
“Anytime you’re facing Coach (Jay) Eilers’ team they are going to coached up ready to go. They return several dudes that put stats on us last year,” Doherty said.
“This is a team we’ve played the past two years and a lot of these kids played for him and they had to mature. It’s gonna be an uphill fight for sure, but we’re ready to compete.”
Eilers said the Falcons will have to contain Larson and then get the ball to Hoffman frequently to be successful against the Hounds.
“They’ve learned their culture and what’s expected. I do think Will Larson is a very good quarterback. If you look at last year’s numbers, he spread the ball out to four of five different receivers,” Eilers said.
“He did lose some of those top targets, but he’s proven he’s gonna make the right throw.”
Moving Vandenberg into the quarterback spot, frees up Hoffman to get in the open field, a move that Eilers said should prove beneficial.
“He’s an athlete and he’s got some really nice speed, runs really good routes and is catching everything right now. We’ve got to make sure he’s touching the ball 11 or 12 times a game for us to be successful,” Eilers said.
The Falcons have a front five that is averaging 275 lbs anchored by the right side with sophomore Brady Heuevelmann listed at 300 and junior Tyler Burch at 305. Senior Ethan Eilers will anchor the left side at tackle with fellow senior Kenny Boyd at guard and junior Damian Snyder at center.
Senior Kendall Baker will help in a backfield that’s sure to have plenty of misdirection. Baker had 179 yards and touchdown last year, averaging just under three yards per carry.
The Falcons finished last year 1-8 with the only win coming in a 26-7 win over Central Lee.
(Story updated to correct the Bloodhounds are looking for their fourth win in a row. Originally the story said third win in a row over West Burlington.)
WHO TO WATCH FOR:
SR. Will Larson – QB/FS
JR. Jakob McGowan – RB/ILB
SR. Cole Thornton – WR/ST
SR. Levi Lowney – OL/LB
SR. Bryce Britton – OL/DL
JR. Tate Johnson – WR/SS
SR. Anthony Hoffman – WR/DB
SO. Hayden Vandenberg – QB/LB
SR. Ethan Eilers – OL/DL
SR. Kenny Boyd – OL/DL
SR. Kendall Baker – RB/DB