Tahlequah began its summer workouts with the start of the Muskogee Passing League Tuesday at the Indian Bowl in Muskogee.
It was the first of what will be four appearances for the Tigers in the 7-on-7 event.
Tahlequah, under head coach Brad Gilbert, is coming off a 6-5 season following a subdued offseason due to COVID-19. Gilbert guided the Tigers to a school-record seventh straight playoff appearance and a 4-2 record in District 5A-4.
"It's great to be back out here because obviously no one was doing this last year," Gilbert said. "It's refreshing, and the kids love 7-on-7. It's really just a great opportunity for us to install a lot of things, continue to go over the details within the installation, but also just to go out and have fun."
Tuesday was a mix of experienced players returning in 2021 and players looking to make their mark and fill in voids.
"We saw a lot of good things out here today, a lot of veteran players making plays, but also a lot of younger guys making plays," Gilbert said. "That's what we want to see on both sides of the ball, and we're excited about the group. We know we've got a long way to go to be where we want to be, but we like where we're at right now. If they continue with the attitude in which they have and with the direction they're going, I think we're going to be okay."
The Tigers return six starters on both sides of the ball for 2021. They will have to replace Oklahoma Coaches Association All-State selection and University of Central Oklahoma signee Qua'shon Leathers, as well as 5A-4 All-District selections Angel Quezada, Kobey Baker, Tanner Christian, Carson Ferguson, Shaw Thornton and Tristan Walters. Quezada was the district's Linebacker of the Year, and Leathers was the Defensive Back of the Year.
But Tahlequah welcomes back another strong group from last year in quarterback Tyler Joice, running back Malik McMurtrey, receiver/defensive back Parker Lane, linebacker/tight end Eli McWilliams, receiver/defensive back Dylan Leep, offensive lineman/defensive lineman Luis Hernandez, fullback/defensive end Jonathan Davis, and defensive lineman Hunter Clay.
Joice didn't get to experience a summer of 7-on-7 prior to his first year as a starter last year.
The senior-to-be showed steady improvement from week to week in 2020 and went on to break the program's single-season mark for completion percentage. He completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,361 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Joice was also second on the team in rushing with 419 yards and added five TDs on the ground.
"If you look at his season last year, he had four early interceptions within the first three or four games, but after that he threw just two," Gilbert said. "That's not really seen very often from a high school quarterback, especially for a guy that didn't get the normal preparation over the summer. His progression is great to see, and for him to come out here and take control, it's always great to have a veteran guy at that position."
Lane is another key weapon returning at receiver and one that Gilbert has seen growth from. Lane, who will be a senior, had 15 receptions for 238 yards in 11 games last season. He's the team's leading returner at the position.
"Parker's had a really good spring and was good today," Gilbert said. "He has a really good grasp of the offense, and it's now his opportunity. He's a senior and he's a guy that we'll look to get the ball to in critical situations, and I think he wants that."
"We've got a bunch of young guys at receiver, I could go down the list, but those guys are competing for spots after losing Kobey [Baker], Tanner [Christian] and Qua'shon [Leathers]," Gilbert added. "We've got guys that need to step up, but we're going to be okay once we get into district play."
Defensively, Tahlequah will turn to inside linebacker Eli McWilliams to fill in for the departed Angel Quezada, who was the leader of the unit in 2020.
McWilliams, who has offers from Tulsa, Kansas State, Utah State, Southern Methodist and New Mexico, was fourth on the team with 65 total tackles as a junior. He led the team with four tackles for losses and posted a season-high 10 tackles against Tulsa Nathan Hale. He also finished with one quarterback sack, one interception and forced two hurries.
"Eli is still learning," Gilbert said. "He's doing a lot of good things, there's no question about that, but for him to be the guy that we need him to be, he's still got some growth there. He knows that, he understands that. He's a vocal guy, he's getting everybody lined up and being that quarterback in the front six."
Other standouts through the offseason on defense have been Leep, McMurtrey, Lane and Josh Munoz, who had an interception Tuesday.
"Dylan is a guy coming back that's had a good spring at corner for us, and Malik is playing really well, and we've moved Parker [Lane] from corner to free safety and he's done a really good job there," Gilbert said. A kid that's had a good spring defensively is Josh Munoz at outside linebacker. He's a kid that saw time last year and he's just got a lot of natural athletic ability."
Tahlequah will have its second session in Muskogee on Tuesday, June 15.