Gig Harbor High School spring football practice is currently underway. After posting a 5-5 record in George Fairhart’s first season at the helm of the program, the Tides are looking to take a step forward in the fall.
Here a few of observations and questions from spring practice.
Familiarity equals more comfort
New coaches bring new schemes, new terminology and generally, different cultures with them. That was the case with Fairhart in year one, after spending 24 years at Eatonville High School. It wasn’t until about halfway through the 2017 season that Fairhart felt things started to click.
“I knew it was going to be challenging learning offense and defense,” Fairhart said. “We did some things differently with the culture of our team, how we wanted kids to behave and coaches to communicate. Having been at one place for so long, I kind of took that for granted. It took a while for everyone to get on the same page. By mid-season, we started off on the right foot.”
Fairhart said the team is “head and shoulders” further along than at the same time last season.
“I feel like we’re all speaking the same language now, when it comes to football, how we operate and do things,” Fairhart said.
Two-way lineman Malik Livingston, an all-league selection on defense last season as a junior, notices a difference this spring.
“We had to learn a lot of new things,” Livingston said. “I think we’re gelling better. We have some positions locked down, people know their responsibilities. Compared to last year, we know each other a bit more.”
Who’s the quarterback?
For the third straight year, there’s no clear answer in spring camp. Ryan Baerg came on strong toward the end of last season for the Tides, but he has graduated. The most obvious answer is senior to-be Ben Hollenbeck, who has started several games since his sophomore season. He has the experience and talent to be the frontrunner.
But Fairhart faces a similar dilemma as he did a year ago. Hollenbeck can start, and is probably the best option on the roster. But he is also a dynamic receiver and defensive back. Putting him at quarterback takes away that flexibility.
“I’m even less certain than I was last year,” Fairhart said. “Ben can do it, but he can play a lot of other positions, too. … We could certainly put him at quarterback, but that takes away a quick, sure-handed receiver.”
Fairthart will have to grapple with that heading into fall camp. Marco Carlson, Prestin Reed, Bryson Adams and a few others are all vying for the quarterback job. For what it’s worth, Hollenbeck has made his desire to play quarterback clear.
“I’m definitely feeling like I have a good command over the spot,” Hollenbeck said. “I think I can take us through the season. Last year, I was feeling receiver. I thought that’s where I could help the team most. … I feel like this year, the QB position is where I want to play, because it’s where I can help the team most.”
No rebuild needed
Gig Harbor loses all-league wide receiver Kellen Gregory, and quarterback Ryan Baerg, but the Tides return the bulk of last year’s roster, including the entire offensive line, receivers/defensive backs Jurrian Hering, Ryan King and others.
“It’ll be hard to replace Kellen and Baerg but I think we’ll really surprise some people,” Hollenbeck said. “The core we have is kind of ridiculous. A bunch of us have been starters since we were sophomores. So I’m really excited about the continuity we’ll have.”
Fairhart said with the culture in place, combined with the returning talent, the Tides could be a force.
“I think we could surprise some people,” Fairhart said. “I wouldn’t say we’re the favorite. I think we have good ability and a much better team attitude. Culture of ‘We, not me,’ we’re just developing that. All the kids are important in our program. Everybody has roles, team success is more important than individual success. We’re getting a lot more buy in.”
All about the little things
This spring, time is spent going through the plays in slow motion, with Fairhart emphasizing proper technique and fundamentals.
“It’s kind of a pre-practice for fall practice,” Livingston said. “We’re focusing on the little things, all the little techniques are done in spring ball so that once fall ball comes, we don’t have to worry about that stuff. (Fairhart) just wants us to get better.”
Fairhart said Gig Harbor wants to be more sound, more precise this season.
“It’s not just the plays you run, it’s how you run them," Fairhart said. "It’s not just tackling, it’s how you tackle.”
It helps the offense to have an experienced line. Senior left tackle Nick Belarde, junior left guard Brenden Rivera, senior center Jake Flynn, right guard Livingston and junior right tackle Samuel Peacock should form one the top offensive lines in the league.
The South Sound Conference is not a finesse league. The league’s top schools, Timberline and Peninsula, play a bruising brand of football, emphasizing controlling the line of scrimmage. Gig Harbor wants to match that intensity.
“In past years, we had been more of an option team,” Livingston said. “I don’t think we were really ready to pound the ball last year. I don’t think we were ready to make the flip over to that play style. This year, I think we’ll be ready for that kind of play style. I think we’ll do great with the ground and pound.”
Hollenbeck hasn’t been this confident in an offensive line in his time at Gig Harbor.
“I’ve never been more excited,” Hollenbeck said. “They’re some of the hardest working guys I’ve seen.”
Fairhart said the line play was a “weak spot” going into his first season. That’s not the case this year.
“We weren’t very experienced or physical last year,” he said. “Now, having all those kids back, we’re going to be much better up front. I think that changes some things for us.”