Bluffton starts new season with some changes on the horizon

Area teams converged on the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum on Friday as media day gave high school football an official kickoff. With a new season, there are always plenty of winds of change, perhaps none as interesting as in Bluffton.

While the Tigers, like the rest of the area, don’t find an “official” start to the 2019 season until August 5, they have been shaping a new look this summer around an improved passing game. In years previous, Bluffton has molded their game around the run. Last year, it was Everett Johnson who emerged as one of the area’s toughest rushers. The season prior, it was Brandon Lockwood.

Now, coach Brent Kunkel sees things getting a little different, a sentiment he shared with Outside the Huddle on media day.

“Obviously running the football is what we have done the last two years that I have been here but it might look a little bit different this year in terms of what we have done in the past,” he said.

Junior Hayden Nern showcased some of his throwing talent just the evening before media day when the Tigers participated in 11-on-11 scrimmages at South Adams. A long quarterback, Nern looked comfortable in the pocket on Thursday and picked apart opposing defenses with some short balls and finding his receivers in the back of the endzone.

Nern served as the backup quarterback a year ago, completing 21-of-38 passes for 202 yards. His time was mostly limited, but he did play the entire South Adams game in 2018 for an injured Gavin King, who has since graduated.

“He is a quarterback. Gavin was an athlete who we asked to play quarterback and run our option game and run the ball well. Hayden is probably not that guy but he can put it on kids,” Kunkel said. “The kid has been a quarterback since seventh grade; even before that, flag league coming up so I like what he does for us throwing the football. We are going to have to tailor our offense to that.”

Bluffton junior quarterback Hayden Nern takes a snap on July 25 during 11-on-11 scrimmages at South Adams.

On Thursday, Nern often targeted the hard charging Kaden Gerber, who has started both years of his high school career. Fellow junior Bobby Malcolm will also serve as a big aerial target. Both guys put up nearly identical numbers in 2018, each catching three touchdowns while Gerber outdid Malcolm in yardage by a single yard, 216 to 215.

Kunkel also expects Kain Thornton to be a weapon out of the slot and running back Cody Mittlestedt to catch the ball some out of the back field. Any way you cut it, Bluffton is going to go far more aerial that the area or the ACAC may be accustomed to.

“That is why I love the spread because it does give us that flexibility. I think it is going to be a different level of prep for schools for us in the sense that the running game is still going to be there but it is not going to be Everett Johnson getting 35 carries,” Kunkel said. “It will probably look a little bit different but it is an exciting version of football that our guys are excited to be playing in.”

Much of the comfort in making some offensive changes for Kunkel comes in his experience with the juniors and sophomores dating back to his time coaching at the middle school level. He was able to build up those classes from those days and he seems to really feel like that will start paying off offensively this year in what should be a competitive conference.

“I like where we are from our skill development standpoint because we have more experience there. Our junior class is very heavy with our skill positions,” Kunkel said. “The big work needs to be done on the offensive line. When we can spread them out and get the ball in space, we feel great.”

Kunkel led the Tigers to a 7-5 mark last season after going 5-6 in his first season. One win away from a sectional title last year, the Tigers have a big target on winning a title this season. They have not won a Sectional since 1988.

But that all can wait until August 5. For now, it was just media day and time to celebrate the kick off to a new season. And Kunkel did so with a hearty grin, beaming with excitement about the changes forthcoming.

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