INOLA — Jeff Williams and the Longhorns have proved their worth in recent years through solid play at the skill positions, and 2020 will be no different.
Fresh off scoring 30.6 points per game last year and making its first playoffs appearance in three years, Inola is prepared to make another postseason push behind an experienced bunch that went 6-5 in 2019.
In all, the Longhorns return seven starters on both sides of the ball. Among them is star receiver Dalton Norman, who has hauled in 95 catches for 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns the past two years.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been fortunate that that’s been the case for us,” Williams said of his program’s recurring pool of skill players. “We’re blessed with a lot of receiver-type kids and some really good skill guys. If we can fill some gaps up front, then offensively I really expect us to be just as exciting we have been, if not more than. I think we’re in the midst of being able to do that and finding some of those guys so when fall camp breaks, we’re ready to go and give our skill kids a chance to go make some plays.”
Since Williams took over the program in 2014, Inola has averaged about 31.3 points through 62 games.
Those skill players will translate nicely on defense as well this year, with speed and athleticism making up for a lack of size.
“We play some more athletic guys on our defensive line, and two of our really good ones are back,” Williams said. “Our linebacker core is really solid, and the same with our secondary. We don’t just require or rely on big bodies.”
Key Question: Can Inola keep up with district newcomers?
The Longhorns may be experienced, but district newcomers Tulsa Central and Holland Hall won’t much care.
Central returns plenty of experience itself after a 6-4 campaign in Class 4A last season, and the Dutch likely won’t lose a step despite moving up from Class 2A.
Those two playoff-caliber squads replace Locust Grove and Sequoyah, both of which missed the postseason last year. In other words, Inola’s quest just got a lot tougher.
Mannford replacing the departed Cascia Hall was the only blessing to come from the district realignment in December.
The Longhorns certainly have their work cut out for them, and other than staying healthy, Williams said his team must take care of business against the weaker teams in the district to give itself a chance at a playoff spot.
“I think there’s a handful of teams that I truly believe we’re better than,” Williams said. “There’s some real challenges in this district, and there are one of two games that I think are tossups. We need to hook up and play as good as we can and have some positive things happen against some of those really big-time people, and when we get the chance to play one of those tossup games, we need to be focused in on what we’re doing and go out and get one of them.
“If we can do that, we’ll find ourselves in the playoffs again.”
Key Returner: Landon Prows. The 5-foot-10 senior quarterback has a great chance at a special season.
Not only could he be the key to leading Inola to the playoffs, but he might also collect some school records along the way.
“He’s a coach’s dream and a play caller’s dream,” Williams said. “He’s fortunate in that he’s got some weapons around him that he can throw the football to, and he’s in a scheme that will allow for him to possibly put up some big numbers. If he goes out and duplicates what he did last year, he’ll be knocking on the door of a few records Jay Baker set that some of us thought wouldn’t be touched for a while.”
Baker, who graduated in 2016, holds most of the school passing records.
Prows has started every game since his sophomore year, throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 43 touchdowns. Just last year he went for 2,417 yards passing and 29 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
Expectations are high for Prows in 2020 thanks to those numbers.
“If I didn’t expect more from him, I probably shouldn’t be getting paid,” Williams said. “I expect Landon to go out and have his most productive season that he’s had. He’s going to have those opportunities to have his most productive season because we don’t shy away from putting the ball in the air.
“We know where we make our money, and we have a lot of really good wide receivers.”
Key Game: Oct. 23 vs. Vinita. The Longhorns have outlasted Vinita in close games the past two years, and these two could once again be in for another barnburner.
Much like last year, this contest could decide who gets a playoff spot. A 28-13 win was enough to push Inola into the postseason while the Hornets finished fifth in District 3A-4.
Add in the fact that Williams’ brother Matt is Vinita’s new coach, and this matchup has all the makings for a classic.
“I think that’s a really big football game, and if we are able to beat Vinita, I think we could be sitting in the neighborhood of maybe 6-2 at that time,” Williams said. “I think we can do some things schematically that could put us in an advantageous spot.
“Can we do enough to beat them? I don’t know, but I do think that’s one of those tossup games.”