PRYOR, OK —
Fans packing Pryor's Tiger Stadium for gridiron action on fall Friday nights can expect plenty of familiar names to make plays — though two of the Tigers' returning players will be making plays at new positions.
For starters, Kegan Yates, who spent last season at quarterback throwing to wide receiver Brennon Barth, will instead be catching passes from his former target as part of Pryor's new triple-option attack.
“I wanted an offense I could hang my hat on, year in and year out, from seventh grade on up,” Pryor head coach Jason Freeman said. “Kids get used to it by the time they get to high school. They'll have run what we do for a long time.”
Freeman is entering his second year at the helm, and the first without the services of decorated running back Carson Smallwood, who racked up nearly 200 yards of offense per game as a senior last season.
“Smallwood last year was a very good running back,” Freeman said. “We're not going to have a lot of those true running back types here. Maybe one every 10 years. Heck, a lot of [teams] won't get a guy like Smallwood, because he was a pretty good one.
“There's no reason for us to bang our heads against the wall every year [using the same offense without a true star running back].”
Freeman and defensive coordinator Joseph Green took a 13-hour road trip after the 2012 season to Muskegon, Mich. and sat down with the coaching staff of Muskegon High. The Big Reds coaching staff has been running the triple option since 2000 and have experienced consistent success, including state titles in 2006 and 2008 and a state runner-up finish last season.
“It's exactly what I wanted,” Freeman said of the triple option. “I was searching for something and it fit everything that I wanted. It's not three yards and a cloud of dust. It's an old-school offense with a new-school look. It makes you keep the defense disciplined.”
The triple option is popular among colleges with recruitment limitations such as service academies, and is seen at high-profile schools like Navy, Air Force and Georgia Tech, though Pryor will use more four-wide sets and pre-snap motion than those schools do.
The triple option is a run-first attack, which meant Freeman needed to find a run-first quarterback.
“Brennon is that type of player,” Freeman said. “A prototypical option quarterback. Kegan is more of a play-action, dropback-type quarterback, a thrower.”
Yates threw for 943 yards and seven touchdowns last season while completing 52 percent of his passes.
“Once we looked to make the switch from traditional quarterback to a running-type guy, I pulled Kegan in because I wanted to talk to him. I felt like he deserved that,” Freeman said. “He had a really good year last year. Ran the offense, threw the ball well. I felt like he deserved to get an explanation as to why we're doing it.”
Freeman described Yates as a true leader, and he was willing to do whatever was asked of him to help the team win.
“I know what kind of character Kegan has,” Freeman said. “I wish I had 11 Kegans. He's a guy that just wants to play and wants to win. If we have more guys with that attitude we'll be very successful.”
Yates, a senior, has already proven himself in his new role as a flanker, starring in the Blue-White Spring Game. Freeman said that Yates has all of the tools to be a standout wide receiver for the Tigers — good hands, a strong vertical, speed and quickness.
Most players would see the switch to wide receiver as a demotion, but not Yates. That's exactly the strength of the option attack. It capitalizes on the strengths of the team, rather than the strengths of one player. “It's a way to get the ball in a lot of different players' hands,” Freeman said. “That's a big deal for us, not having to focus on one guy.”
Barth, who had a standout year in center field for the Tiger baseball team, made the transition from wideout to quarterback in the spring. Barth caught 19 balls for 339 yards and three touchdowns last year — all team highs.
“Brennon is a leader, first of all, but he's more of a quiet leader,” Freeman said. “He's very competitive and he wants to do very well. He's a gamer. He does anything he can to get first downs, score and make plays. I don't have any worries that he can handle it.”
In the fall, both players will know the routes and timing of pass plays from both ends, an intangible that few pairs of players on any roster share. And Barth, a junior, is in the unique position not only to share the locker room and huddle with Yates — an experienced player at the quarterback position — but additionally, Barth will have the luxury to throw to Yates in crucial downs late in games.
“We all had sort of a tough spring, because this offense is a totally new animal, especially for a quarterback,” Freeman said. “The coaches had a tough time too, trying to get all of the reads correct, assignments down.”
If Freeman and his coaching staff can get the wrinkles ironed out of the base offense (and add some new wrinkles every week), the Tigers will be strong candidates to improve on their 4-6 record and return to the Class 5A playoffs.
No matter what happens in the win-loss column, Tiger fans will be treated to a truly unique style of play for years to come.
“I don't know if there is any other team in Oklahoma that runs a true triple option,” Freeman said. “I don't have any reservations about making the move. This is the best thing for the program.”