BLUFFTON – When Jeff Richards was hired as the Bluffton head football coach in 2016, his goal for the program was to get the players bigger and more physical.
The former Bluffton standout has accomplished that.
Now, Richards is hoping his program can turn the corner.
Bluffton returns 12 letter winners from last year’s 4-6 team (2-5 Northwest Conference).
“We have a big group of young guys coming in this year,” Richards said. “They did some good things in junior high, but we need to see how that’s going to translate to high school ball. We also have some guys switching positions and doing some other stuff. … We want to see who’s going to be in the right spot to help us this season.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a challenge for Richards and his staff to simulate certain situations at practice.
“So, it’s a little bit harder, not having seven-on-sevens, and not having the scrimmages either. Week 1 will be a big question mark for every school,” he said. “I’d say it’s going about as well as it could, especially with all the uncertainty and chaos that’s been going on. The kids are really positive. We’ve had a lot of really good practices, so far. The worst thing about this is the uncertainty.”
Richards does have some size returning. Leading the way is junior lineman Aaron Tabler (303 pounds) and senior lineman Zavier O’Neal (280 pounds).
“Physically, Aaron Tabler is back, as a junior. He’s a 6-foot-3, 300-pound tackle. Zavier O’Neal is back on the defensive and offensive line. He’s about 5-10, 280. So, those two are definitely our biggest guys,” Richards said.
Bluffton’s offensive scheme is no secret to the Northwest Conference opponents. Like in the previous seasons, Richards will employ the flexbone/triple option.
“We’re still an option-based team,” Richards said. “Last year, we started to do a little bit out of the (shot) gun, but we have that flex-bone philosophy. Triple options are what we hang our hat on.”
Leading the way for the Bluffton offensive unit is junior quarterback Nate Schaadt (185), who will be the starting signal-caller for the Pirates for the third consecutive season.
In 2019, Schaadt passed for 463 yards on 33-of-77 passing. He threw for five touchdowns and was intercepted five times. On the ground, Schaadt rushed for 445 yards and 11 TDs. Tyson Shutler (Sr., 183 pounds) rushed for 461 yards and four TDs. Shutler also came out of the backfield and hauled in 17 passes for 312 yards and two scores.
In 2019, the Pirates scored 23.5 points per game. However, Bluffton gave up 31.9 points per contest.
Leading the way for Bluffton, defensively, is Shutler. Last season, Shutler led the NWC in interceptions with four at a safety position.
“Tyson Shutler is a kid we are really excited about, because as a freshman, he could have been the lowest kid on our depth chart,” Richards said. “But he was an all-district defensive back last year. This year as a senior, he’s a leader and he’s in great shape and looking really good.”
Richards will employ a 4-2-5 scheme on the defensive side of the ball.
“On the defensive side, we bring back our entire line, which I think was one of the best defensive lines in the league last year,” Richards said. “In the secondary, we bring back Tyson Shutler, who was an all-district, first team all-conference performer. Nate Schaadt, on the defensive side at a safety position, does a really nice job for us. A lot of big pieces are back; and some guys who were role players last year are looking to step up.”
Richards projects the NWC to be as competitive as always.
“I think our conference is one of the most entertaining to look at. We’ve had a three-way tie for the conference title the past two years. On any given night, I think anyone can beat anyone,” he said.