There's no beating around the bush with Southridge head coach Kevin Bickler, no sugar coating his expectations for the Skyhawks this season.
The long-time offensive coordinator turned newly minted head coach believes last year's 2-8 record and sixth place finish in Metro was an anomaly — a rare down season for a program that's no stranger to success. With young, promising pieces in place and a number of potential two-way standouts such as Bradley Bickler, Keyvaun Eady, Blake Sims, Kade Hustler and Nico Koppy in the chamber, and a renewed emphasis on toughness, speed and tempo both sides of the football, Southridge is primed to move back to the top of Metro.
"I'm not going to be bashful about it, I have high expectations for this year and think our kids can accomplish some really great things," Kevin Bickler said. "But like I tell our players, you can talk about it all you want, but you have to see it through your actions. Our kids have been working hard at practice and they want it bad. We have a tough schedule throughout the entire year, especially early in September. But, I do think if our kids compete at the level that they can that we do have just as much of a legitimate shot of being there in the top-two or three in the Metro. I think we have the talent to compete for a Metro title."
Senior quarterback Bradley Bickler enters his third year as Southridge's starting signal caller. He's the Metro's most experienced field general. At 6-foot-7, 240 pounds with basketball hops and fluid athleticism, Bradley Bickler is the sort of enticing athlete who could play anywhere on the field. But, Kevin Bickler, Bradley's uncle, likes that his nephew has played quarterback for multiple seasons. He commands the rest of the team's respect as a leader at arguably the most important position in the game. And being that Kevin Bickler was Southridge's offensive coordinator before taking the head coaching gig, the two are on the same page when it comes to play calling.
"He does things the right way," Kevin Bickler said. "He's at every single workout and trained extremely hard. He's been a vocal leader and the kids really follow him well. The quarterback has to be in a position of leadership, somebody the kids respect and someone who is the commander and general of the offense."
Sophomore dual-threat quarterback Darik Salinas will back up Bradley Bickler. Sims was a third-team all-Metro running back as a sophomore, displaying the sort of breakaway speed and between-the-tackle power that projects the now-junior as a potential star.
"Sims is a special player," Kevin Bickler said. "We've designed our offense around using his strengths in terms of the running game. He's explosive, fast and a leader on our team who does things the right way. I expect him to have a huge season."
Sims will be Southridge's main bell cow, but Koppy, Eady and slot wide receiver Jeffrey Higgens will also get touches to take the load off of Sims' back. Koppy plays a sort of hybrid fullback position with the frame to lead block for Sims, but also catch the ball out of the backfield. Junior Graham Auer will play at the flex tight end spot.
Senior wide receiver Michael Pluck, Higgins and Eady give Bradley Bickler plenty of pass catching ammunition out of Southridge's revamped spread offensive formations. Eady stood out as a sophomore both for his ability to make acrobatic grabs deep down the field and create huge yards after the catch on intermediate routes.
"When Eady has the ball in his hands, he's dynamic," Kevin Bickler said. "That kid competes, too. He wants to win no matter what. In a jump ball situation, he comes down with it 99 percent of the time. He's a phenomenal vertical threat, but he's also dangerous on short routes or handing the ball off out of our fly sweep. I've been very impressed with him and expect him to have a breakout season."
Hustler is another versatile two-way star who can play just about anywhere on the gridiron. He'll station himself at left tackle as Southridge's lone returner up front. The junior is also one of the best defensive ends in the state according to Kevin Bickler.
"He's as good as they come," Kevin Bickler said. "He's just a flat out stud. He's a physical, strong specimen. He'll be the anchor on the line."
Kevin Bickler said senior Eric Carlson and sophomore Zach Slail are battling it out at right tackle. Senior guard Tom Sawyer contributed to the varsity team as a junior. Sophomore Gabe Klotzbach and senior Steele Peterson are competing for the right guard starting position. Senior center Anthony Valverde didn't miss a single workout during the off-season.
"I think a lot of our success offensively will be decided by how our line comes along throughout the season," Kevin Bickler said. "They've worked really hard to be the kind of line they want to be and have embraced hard-nosed style of football. Now it's just seeing how they stack up against the top teams in the state."
Koppy is a first-team all-Metro middle linebacker who's embraced Kevin Bickler's desire for speed and pace on the defensive side of the ball. The senior led Southridge with 110 tackles in nine games last year.
"He's relentless with a nose for the football," Kevin Bickler said.
Bradley Bickler will also play at defensive end opposite of Hustler, forming a formidable, tall, athletic pass rushing combination off the edge. At outside linebacker, Sims will start in an attempt to situate Southridge's best athletes together.
"I want our 11 fastest guys on the field to be on defense," Kevin Bickler said. "We pride ourselves on speed. I don't care about size. We want guys who are fast and can get 11 (players) to the ball. If that means we have to rotate guys on offense, then so be it. We start with our defense, first. I feel like we have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. Now it's just a matter of taking what they've learned and the changes that have been made and executing on the field."