It’s not just change in the form of a third head coach in three seasons at Hilldale.
It’s also a coordination overhaul.
Meet Erwin Starts, the offensive coordinator and Kaleb Harris and Ernie Ragland, the co-defensive coordinators. Starts takes over the duties Greg Werner had as head coach last year, while Harris and Ragland replace Ryan Keenom, who made a lateral movement to Wagoner.
All have previous area ties.
Starts was at Tahlequah briefly before coaching at Lincoln, Arkansas for a couple years. He was on one-time Muskogee head coach Matt Hennesy’s staff at Locust Grove as a receivers coach when David Blevins, the current Hilldale head coach, was offensive coordinator. When North Texas’ Mason Fine broke state career passing yardage records there, Jason Pirtle was his top receiver and student under Starts’ tutleage.
That was an offense that snapped the ball in rapid fire succession.
“That’s our plan, a snap every 10 to 12 seconds,” he said. “We will be physical and fast, spread you out and while our bread and butter will be running the football, we will like to throw it around.”
He’s got a mix of speedy and tall receivers and a quarterback battle, among other focuses, and a rapport with his head coach to navigate the journey the right way.
“We established that at Locust and always thought a lot alike,” he said. “When he talked to me after getting this job, it wasn’t a tough decision for me.”
And it’s proven thus far to be a good fit.
“I’m impressed by pretty much all my first and second group of receivers,” he said. “We’ve introduced them to a style of play they haven’t experienced and have seen perhaps only on TV. It’s a different style for 4A. But seeing how those guys have adjusted and acclimated to the offense, we’ve got some athletes. It’s about putting it all together.”
He’ll be the “eye in the sky” in the press box and Blevins will call plays. The pace will dictate a closer line of communication on the field.
His personal style? “I’m the kids biggest fan but also biggest critic,” he said. “You’ve got to establish love and trust for one another if you’re going to make that work.”
Harris has been an offensive coach most of his career.
He started as a lay coach with his dad, Rusty Harris, an offensive coordinator on Hennesy’s staff at Muskogee (where Blevins was a line coach), and from that point followed him to Hulbert and then to Haskell, both times as offensive coordinator. After his dad became superintendent at Haskell over a year ago, Harris remained on staff.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to eventually be a head football coach. I’d been with my dad so long, I thought this would be a great opportunity to expand my horizons and step out on my own a little,” he said.
“There’s a comfort zone there with David. He’s been a sounding board from time to time for me, and when the offer came up, I couldn’t pass it up.”
Harris will handle the defensive backs. Ernie Ragland will handle the front seven.
Ragland coached with Hennesy earlier than anyone — at Hennesy’s first head coaching stop in Dodge City, Kan. He joined him when Ron Lancaster was Muskogee’s head coach. He has also coached at Midway, assisted James Singleton at Fort Gibson (his son Jared played as part of the offensive line he coached), then had some time out of state at two spots in Alabama, including Eufaula, Alabama.
The Alabama swing was when he went to the defensive side. One of his kids there was Courtney Upshaw, an All-American as a senior out of Alabama and a member of two national championships, including the one in 2012 where he was the defensive MVP of the BCS National Championship game.
Ragland said when he approached Blevins after former Muskogee defensive coordinator David Heath had a change of heart and dropped the Hilldale defensive coordinator offer for Catoosa, as Blevins searched through several options.
“We’d talked before,” Ragland said. “But at that point I went and gave him a list of names in Alabama to check out, and told him, ‘Pook, I can do this,’ referring to the head coach as the short version of the nickname Pookie that he’s had since his playing days at Hilldale.
“It’s a transition but you know, I’ve coached been in coaching for 24 years. … Coaching is coaching.”
Now, it’s about connecting with the guy over the back end in this shared arrangement.
“Both of us have an open mind, a lot of give and take, and in the end, it’s a simple defense,” he said. “We don’t want the kids thinking a lot, we want them to get the call, line up and go fast. There’s some blitz packages they’ll have to process but the intent is to go play hard.”
It’s still going to be a 3-4 base, same as Keenom had.
“We’re not changing up much, maybe more zone than man. We’ve told the kids we’re not coming n in to change everything,” Ragland said. “If you try to change a lot of things, it’s going to take a lot of time to implement.
“They’ve been a 3-4, the terminology will be different but the kids are coming on. We’re young, not going to lose a lot to graduation. So in the years to come we can become a defense that can be really hard to block.”