Progress Sports Correspondent
A new "Bell" is ringing for the 2006 Claremore Zebra football faithful.
This new sound is music to the ears of the players who will be wearing the Red and White. And, as Claremore prepares to start its 99th year of high school football, the Zebra community is getting back in step behind the program as excitement grows each passing day.
Keith Bell has arrived as the new head coach and he has brought his fast-paced offense with him.
For the Zebra fans who attend games mostly as a social event, here's a few words of advice: Arrive early and get your visiting done before the kickoff. After the kickoff, there will be no time for visiting.
Under the direction of Bell, the Zebras will not use a huddle between downs. Once the referee spots the ball, the Zebras will be ready for the next snap. A roster of more than 50 players has had all summer to get accustomed to this fast- moving play-calling. Now, it’s time for action.
"We still have a lot of work to do, but the kids are learning fast and picking it up," Bell said following several days of preseason practice. "A lot of effort is being shown and the coaching staff is still looking for the right players to step forth and claim a starting position. Everyone is working hard to reach this goal."
Coming from Class 2A powerhouse Oklahoma City Millwood, Bell was hired last spring to replace Rex Trent. Before the end of the school year, Trent resigned to enter private business. Under Trent, the Zebras reached the Class 5A playoffs five straight years.
Claremore is coming off a 6-5 record.
The Zebras have won 13 district titles over the past 47 years, but is still seeking a state championship.
Claremore schools superintendent Mike McClaren announced the hiring of Bell, saying at the time:
"The consensus was that he was the one that would capitalize on the successes we've had and take us to the next level."
During a 16-month stay at Millwood, Bell guided his team to a 10-2 record. Many are naming Millwood as the favorite for top honors this year.
Claremore does not have the athletes his former team will showcase, but Bell and his staff are not complaining. They will be ready for the season-opener.
One of the Zebra key features will be size.
Two-year starter Brock Rodriguez, at 6-5 and 315 pounds, is back for his senior year. He will be joined on the offensive front by junior Miguel Bejarano (6-0, 265) and senior Moose Morrison (6-4, 240). This trio promises to cause some major concern for opposing defensive coaches.
While discussing his player roster, Bell was quick to state that no one has a position wrapped up. Even returning starters must earn playing time.
"I hesitate to list a starting lineup at this time," he said. "If someone's name is not mentioned, we don't want him to give up and feel he doesn't have a chance. We want all players to keep fighting for playing time."
Still, certain individuals are making themselves visible on the practice field.
To direct Bell's no-huddle, hurry-up offense, junior Blake Grauer (6-0, 180) and senior Casey Cook (5-9, 165) are bidding for the starting quarterback job. Cook will also see starting status at defensive cornerback.
Operating out of the formation known as the Broken I, Claremore's quarterback will line up about five yards behind center. A tailback, or the running back, will be off the signal-caller's hip while the fullback will be positioned behind a guard. Depending on the play decision, the fullback can station himself on the right or left side.
Other formations the Zebras will use have names like "doubles," "trips," "pro," "nasty," "slot," and "empty."
To successfully operate this type of offense, all plays are given from the sideline by coaches' arm motions. The offensive unit must "read" the next play as it is lining up on the ball.
This makes for a fast-moving contest.
A pair of juniors, Ryan Foster (5-11, 180) and Timmy Butcher (5-9, 175), have the speed and grit to claim the tailback duties. Each should see a lot of playing time, thus allowing a fresh running back on the field from start to finish.
The same holds true at fullback. Junior Josh Dexter (5-7, 180) might hold an early edge due to experience, but sophomore Garrett Ryan (5-7, 185) is learning fast.
Because the Zebras will not hesitate to put the ball in the air, a good group of wide receivers is needed. This position will be manned by seniors Greg Sanders (5-11, 155) and Eric Buck (6-2, 180) and juniors Derek Keniston (5-7, 150) and Bobby Hudson (6-0, 170). Buck and Keniston will also be on defense.
And now for the tight end spot. Team leader Andrew Rounds (6-2, 175) returns for his senior season and it promises to be a busy one for him. A running back a year ago, Rounds is now looking to be the favorite pass receiver as he makes the move to tight end. He is expected to be used some at his old position.
A defensive starter, too, Rounds will fill a spot on all the specialty teams.
Taking care of the the ball-carriers will be "The Herd." During practice sessions, this group has been decked out in black t-shirts, making these linemen quite visible. The fact is, their combined size makes it impossible not to see them.
Rodriguez, Bejarano and Morrison will be joined by senior Cory Nolan (6-2, 285) and sophomore Kyle Brassfield (6-2, 220) at the guard slots and returning senior starter Daniel Wood (6-1, 230) at center.
Even more size can be added up front from the likes of senior David Gordon (6-0, 250) and sophomores Austin Hammack (6-3, 225) and Drew Mangrum (6-2, 225).
It appears early that Rounds and Dexter may be the only two-way starters. Rounds will move to strong safety with the defenders with Dexter manning a defensive end post.
Claremore will continue to operate from a basic 4-4 formation to hold foes in check. Four down linemen will be backed by four linebackers.
Dexter and junior Josh Holland (5-8, 185) could start at each end. Senior Tyler Brogdon (6-0, 200) and the sophomore Brassfield will improve size, if needed.
A pair of sophomores will line up at defensive tackle. The coaches believe Andrew Blackard (6-2, 220) and Cody Case (6-1, 230) can handle the duties. Another sophomore, Ryan Sawney (5-10, 195), is pushing for a spot.
Seniors Ricky Murray (6-2, 165) and Grubb, junior Jeremy Irvin (5-6, 165) and sophomore Colby Borham (5-9, 180) are stationed at linebacker.
At cornerback the Zebras will have the threesome of Sanders, Cook, and Buck taking turns. Sanders is a returning starter.
Two more returners are trying to reclaim positions in the secondary. Junior Ryan Foster (5-11, 180) is back at free safety while Butcher returns as a nickel back. They are being pushed by seniors Keniston and Colton Hinds (5-7, 170), plus sophomore Cody Basks (5-7, 150).
The job of place-kicking is still open, Bell indicated, but the team's punter appears to be Buck. Doing the deep-snapping will be Rounds.
Bell has lined up a mixture of old and new in forming his coaching staff.
Five members from Trent's staff — Rob Gilbreath, Jeremy Hughes, Mark Morgan, Gavin Crocker and Derby Kinnard — will be joined by newcomers Brandon Christian, Brian Key and Jack Gilbreath.
Jack Gilbreath, former head coach at Catoosa, has come out of retirement to join son Rob on the Bell staff.