High School Football: New Northwestern coach favors physical approach

First-year Northwestern coach Sam Johnson knows of no better sound than the thud-thud-thud of colliding football pads — especially when it’s his team initiating the contact.

He wants the Warriors to be known for inflicting punishment this season. And while that may be a tough sell during August practices, he believes his players will embrace that mentality once they see the effect it can have on opponents.

“I think they’ll really like it when we line up against somebody and smash it down their throat,” he said. “I’m an offensive-line guy. That’s our identity. When we do our warmups, on every whistle, we say, ‘Physical.’ That’s what we want our identity to be — physical.”

One player Johnson won’t have to convert is senior linebacker Zack Leist, who led the Warriors in tackles last season with 66 and also tallied six sacks.

Asked about the emphasis on hard-hitting play, Leist said with a smile: “That’s a blast. Hitting people across from you is the funnest thing when it comes to football.”

The Warriors are in the midst of perhaps their best era in the sport. They went 21-19 during the four-year run of coach Seth Whiting, who left for Alliance High School. They were 8-42 in the five years before him.

“When I was in middle school, nobody looked forward to high school football,” Leist said. “Northwestern was at the bottom and always has been.

“We’ve changed that. It started with Coach Whiting. He had the first winning record for a senior group, and we plan to continue the success.”

The Warriors will have to overcome some inexperience to maintain that level. They have three other returning seniors among their 41 players in grades 9-12: running back/linebacker Tanner White, fullback/defensive end Wade Hastings and cornerback/receiver Xavier Voorhees.

Another senior, running back/defensive back Travis Risner, is playing varsity for the first time.

The Warriors also will need to find a replacement for graduated quarterback Trevor Gebby, who passed for 1,118 yards and 10 TDs last season. Candidates for the job are sophomores Camron Smyczek and Eli Berner.

But Johnson is jazzed up about coaching so much youth, saying, “They want to listen, they want to win, they want to get better.”

He’s also upbeat about his squad.

“We feel great. We’re going to line up across from everybody and expect to win the game,” he said. “That’s the way we want to teach these guys and build a winning culture.

“We’re going to be confident and expect to win. We’ll be young, but our goal is to win the CBC Mad River division. If we weren’t shooting for that, something’s wrong.”

Johnson, who turned 26 today, was an offensive-line starter for Ohio University. He spent two years on the staff at Tippecanoe, which has made the playoffs 10 straight seasons.

The Red Devils have relied on a no-huddle system with plenty of misdirection, some of which Johnson plans to install at Northwestern.

“We’ll put guys in motion. We’ll have guys running all over the place,” he said. “But we’re still going to be a power football team. We’re going to run the ball right at you.”