The backbone of the offense has some question marks for Tahlequah heading into the 2019 season.
Three starters from last year and a wealth of experience are gone from an offensive line that helped the Tigers set new standards in both the passing and running games.
Nick Grasshopper, Aidan Yahola and Brandon Davis must be replaced.
“Anytime you go into a season and you’ve got to replace three of the five starters up front there’s some questions there,” Tahlequah head coach Gilbert said. “That’s just kind of the life that we live.”
But Gilbert was quick to put a spin on the lack of experience, not just on the offensive line but also the defensive side.
“In the offseason we’ve never had a group of young men work as hard as they have,” he said. “They have really put in the work. We’ve actually seen their bodies transform and mature, but they’ve also matured mentally as much as they have physically, so that’s a good start.
“We’re hoping the lack of experience isn’t real evident, but it will be evident in those first few games. We feel good about the guys that we’ve got, we just know we won’t be as good in week one as we will be in week four.”
Not all is lost.
There are established starting points with two key elements returning.
The building blocks come in the form of Blake Corn and Hayden Napier.
“We return two guys that have been there and have done that,” Gilbert said. “Anytime you can start with those two guys I think we’re starting in a good place.”
The duo will be front and center when it comes to providing running lanes for standout running back Dae Dae Leathers and providing a clean pocket for quarterback Tate Christian.
Corn, now a senior, has been a starter since his sophomore year. He will anchor the line at one of the tackle positions.
“I’ve been the head coach now going on my eighth year and from everything that the leadership role consists of he’s by far the best we’ve had,” Gilbert said. “I think he’s mature enough to handle the praise, but I mean that. He goes about it the right way. He’s always here, he’s always on time, always 100 percent.
“But the best thing about him is that he’s taken ownership of the program. Blake is exactly what you want in a guy that’s going to lead a football team. Blake is coming back with tons of experience. He’s started ever since week one of his sophomore year, and he’s got a chance to be one of the best to play in my tenure within the offensive and defensive lines.”
Napier became a full-time starter in 2018 as a junior. He will fill in at one of the guard spots.
“Hayden’s a guy that has come a long ways,” Gilbert said. “He’s a young man that didn’t play much at all his sophomore year. He played a little bit but not a lot. He started all 11 games last year and has really improved. He’s one of those guys that’s had a really good offseason. He’s really embraced the expectations of what we have for the seniors.”
Now to the big question. Who fills those vacated spots?
Gilbert mentioned a host of names — Joe Hendrix, Tristan Walters, Justin Hitchcock, Brandon Jackson, Kooper McAlvain, Lance Holcomb and Montana Wood.
Hendrix did start in three games last year and will take over at the center position.
“Joe has matured and has really gained a lot of strength, which has also brought a lot of confidence,” Gilbert said. “We’re excited about his progress and where he’s at.”
“We’ve got bodies there that have been productive this offseason, bodies that have matured, have gotten stronger, have gotten quicker,” Gilbert said. “Now, it has to transfer to the field and seeing where they’re at. They’ve have a good spring and they had a good showing at team camp. They work hard and they’re as good of a unit as we’ve had when it comes to the weight room and offseason work. They’ve really embraced that and it’s been exciting to see as a coach.”