There are tough calls for first-year head football coaches and then there are tough calls.
Deciding whether to go for it on fourth-and-1 should be a snap, though, for Oswego’s Brian Cooney — the team’s former defensive coordinator who takes over for retired Dave Keely in his 15th season at the school.
That choice will be a breeze compared to the first major decision of Cooney’s tenure, choosing a replacement for three-year starting QB Ryan West (SIU).
Will the Panthers revert to their smash-mouth run game of old or continue to air it out like they did under West, who threw for 3,054 yards in his career?
“It’s gonna be a combination of both. We’ve got the personnel to do that,” said Cooney, noting teams that were close to 50-50 were always the toughest to defend.
“You lose a talent like Ryan West, it’s hard to replace him and run the same type of system. You have to expect adjustments.”
Cooney has had three different players work at the position but has settled on a freshman, Steven Frank, to succeed West.
“He is worthy of moving up to the varsity level. He has really great potential,” the coach said. “He’s 6-1 or -2, has great mechanics. He’s a smart kid, a sociable kid and has already assimilated well with the team.”
And many Oswego fans thought Keely was bold, promoting West as a sophomore.
Multi-talented senior Brett Wainwright also worked out at the position but will spend most of his time at wideout, much like last year.
“We’ve got a lot more options when (Wainwright) has his hands on the ball,” said Cooney. “He’ll be a slot receiver and running back as well. He’s such a versatile player you could put him on the field on any special team, offense or defense and he would fit in somewhere. He is so talented in so many ways. He’s lightning in a bottle he’s so quick.”
The Panthers also have a Wildcat package they can turn to with running back Tyler Walsh taking direct snaps.
Frank, meanwhile, has plenty of weapons, starting with three-year wideout Jack Kwiatkowski, who led the team in receiving last year. Senior Mickeel Stewart is back at RB and wideouts Jamaal Richardson and Elliott McGaughy also return.
Then there’s sophomore Zach West, Ryan’s younger brother, who “can make some circus catches, a great route runner who’s gonna only get better with time,” said Cooney.
Three starters — Jordan Smith (LT), John Malatia (RT) and Andy Salazar (RG) — return on the offensive line.
Linebacker returnee Bryce Holm and defensive ends Chad Burdo (moved from LB) and Justin Best, along with Richardson in the secondary, lead a defense Cooney feels will be much improved.
“I believe if you’re gonna be moved up (like Frank), you’ve gotta see playing time,” said Cooney. “Not to say you have to get every snap or be a, quote-unquote, starter. But you have to get the most out of the varsity experience to make it worth your while and our while. It would be detrimental to the kid to sit there.”
Frank’s tests will come fast and furious. The Panthers open at Geneva and then host Waubonsie Valley before beginning play in the Southwest Prairie Conference, where Cooney thinks “you can make a case for any team beating any team.”