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story.lead_photo.caption Helias quarterback Daniel Rhea scrambles for a gain last Friday during the Blair Oaks Jamboree at the Falcon Athletic Complex in Wardsville. Photo by Mark Wilson / California Democrat.

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Chris Hentges is not your typical first-year head football coach.

Been there before, done that before. And as he prepares to start his second stint in leading the Helias Crusaders, things are definitely better this time.

"If you compare where we are at in 2018 to where we were in 2006 when I became head coach, there's no comparison," Hentges said. "We are light years ahead of where we were in my first game as a head coach. We were baby-stepping as coaches and players just feeling our way.

"I truly believe we are in a better place now."

The Helias football program has always been a big part of Hentges' life and when the opportunity came up earlier this year to return as head coach, he couldn't turn it down.

"My dad's first year as head coach was the year I was born and I can't even remember life without Helias football," Hentges said. "Even though it was great to have the chance to watch Hale (his son entering his senior season at Alabama) play, there was something missing.

"It's great to be back."

III

Hentges brought the spread offense to Helias back in 2006 and it will return with him in 2018.

This senior class last ran the spread as eighth graders, so much of the summer was spent trying to install the offense.

"Learning a new playbook is like trying to drink out of a fire hose, it just comes at you so quickly," Hentges said. "It can be hard to get into the finer points as you're installing things."

As the season begins tonight at Hannibal, the focus has sharpened from the entire playbook to a certain set of plays.

"When you get to a game week, you can focus on a plan and the execution of what you're trying to run," Hentges said. "You pare things down and get specific and you see execution going up."

The quarterback is a key component in the spread and the battle for the starting position has carried into this week. Daniel Rhea, a senior who started behind center last year in the flexbone, and sophomore Jacob Weaver have competed for the starting position.

Hentges had not settled on starter early this week, but stressed Rhea and Weaver will both play.

"Both of them are very capable of running our offense," Hentges said. "When we make the decision on the starter, the other guy will continue to get reps to be prepared as if he was going to start.

"You are always one play away from needing him to get out there on the field."

Rhea is one of eight returning starters on the offensive side. And even with the major change in the offensive philosophy, nothing can replace time on the field.

"Game experience is invaluable," Hentges said. "There are always going to be some rough spots, some things that you are going to struggle with in your first year like every other program.

"But I like where we're at right now."

Blake Veltrop, a senior who ran for nearly 1,000 yards last season, returns at running back.

"Blake is a very explosive runner," Hentges said. "We are going to have to find ways to get him the ball when he's at top speed.

"Elite speed is hard to find and he has that kind of speed."

Zach Covington, another senior, looked good in last Friday night's Jamboree after missing time last season with an injury.

"He's working to get back to 100 percent, he has very good vision when he runs between the tackles," Hentges said. "He's a great north-south runner."

Hentges believes the Crusaders have a lot of depth at the receiver positions.

Jason Binkley, a senior, will start at X receiver, while the Z receiver will be senior Ethan Johnson, The reserves at those spots include seniors Zach Woehr and Michael Clement, along with junior Griffin Buschjost and Caleb Justice.

"We have great depth at receiver," Hentges said. "Any of those six guys can get the job done for us."

Adam Wilbers, another senior, will start at Y receiver. Andrew Bexten, a senior, junior Jake Warren and sophomore Damon Johanns will be the backups.

Nathan Distler and Nick Casten, both seniors, will see time at what would be the tight end/fullback spot.

"These kids have shown me they can get the job done," Hentges said.

While the shift from the flexbone has been a learning process for the skill position players, it also has been a big change for the offensive linemen.

"Even the posture in their stance has changed," Hentges said. "But they seem to be adapting well."

Helias will start four seniors tonight on the line. Teddy Chen will start at left tackle, with Zach Vanderfeltz at left guard. Steven Houser will get the nod at center, while Jim Donovan, a coaches all-state selection at center last season, moves to right guard.

Dylan Kopp, a sophomore, will start at right tackle.

"He's a warrior, he's a tough kid that just doesn't have a lot of experience," Hentges said.

Michael Strosser, a senior injured in preseason camp, was slated to start at right tackle. Hentges said he could return as early as Week 3 in the home opener against Vianney.

Among the backups are sophomores Gage Trachsel and Will Heckman.

"We feel comfortable with our depth," Hentges said.

It's been a learning process this summer for the offense, but one the group has accepted and embraced.

"We are blessed with really smart kids at Helias who can learn things very quickly," Hentges said. "We're challenging them and they are responding to the challenge."

III

It's a similar story of learning on the defensive side as the Crusaders will operate mostly out of a 4-3 front.

"It's the defense we installed the second year I was head coach," Hentges said. "It will help us against the spread and I think we've got the personnel to run it.

"We've got great linebackers, strength and talent in the secondary and a lot of depth on the defensive line. We should be able to rotate guys in and out to keep them fresh."

Johanns will get the start at left end, while Chen will start on the right side. Donovan and Vanderfeltz will start at the tackle positions.

"We think we can stop the run on first and second down, then get those quick guys in on the ends to get a great pass rush and get after the quarterback," Hentges said.

Colden Imhoff, a senior, will start at Will linebacker. Garrett Schnieders, a junior, will start at Mike linebacker, while Distler will start at Will linebacker.

Wilbers, a senior, returns at one cornerback spot after receiving all-state honors last season. Dylan Weaver, a junior, will start at the other corner.

Johnson and senior Austin Radmacher will start at the safety spots under defensive coordinator Victor Bell.

"Coach Bell has done a great job leading the players and the defensive coaches in the summer," Hentges said.

III

One thing that hasn't changed for the Crusaders is the special teams.

Carson Stieferman, a senior, returns at punter.

"Carson is a very good punter and he's improved on his leg strength and his hang time," Hentges said. "He can be a great weapon for us."

Vito Calvaruso, a junior, is back at kicker.

"He's hitting them from 55 yards in practice and that can be a great comfort as a coach because drives can stall out sometimes," Hentges said. "A lot of high school coaches go for it on fourth-and-10 at the 30 because they don't have any other options.

"But with Vito, points are points, and he has the leg to kick it. I don't know if there are a lot of high school kickers that can kick a field goal as long as he can."

That leg will also pay off in kickoff game.

"He can put it in the end zone and that's big to get them to start at the 20," Hentges said. "Make your opponent have to drive the long field."

III

Helias has lost five straight games to Hannibal and would love to break that streak tonight.

"Hannibal has always been a quality program and the kids have placed beating them as goal No. 1 on the goal board," Hentges said. "Offensively, they're going to do what Hannibal always does with its strong run game and our offense is going to have to be ready to make adjustments for whatever defense they show us."

Helias has four new teams on its schedule — Vianney, Cardinal Ritter, Borgia and Monroe City. In addition to Hannibal, returning teams on the schedule are Hickman, Father Tolton, Rock Bridge and DeSmet.

"It's a good mix for us," Hentges said. "It will be challenging and will make us a better football team and that's what you want as a coach. You want to get a shot at a district championship."

Helias will compete for that district title against seven new opponents, including old Mid-State Conference foes Camdenton and Rolla.

Hentges said the new coaching staff is off to a great start.

"It's an excellent staff, with some old guys and some young guys," he said. "We're working hard, everyone is getting along great and we have great chemistry, which is so important."

Now it's time to play a game.

"I feel good with where we're at," Hentges said.

Game time today is 7 p.m.

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