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Football: Cougars dealing with inexperience

Zumbrota-Mazeppa senior quarterback Freedom Hunt rolls out for a pass during drills on Aug. 20 in Zumbrota. Hunt started one game for the Cougars in 2013, and will be the team’s starter on Friday in the 2014 season opener at Stewartville. (Republican Eagle photo by Joe Brown)

ZUMBROTA – One hundred ninety-seven passing yards. One hundred fourteen rushing yards. Three hundred eighty receiving yards.

That’s all the Zumbrota-Mazeppa offense has returning from its skill positions in 2014. So before the Cougars could figure out how they will do in the Southern Football Alliance White Division this fall, they need to find out who’s going to throw the ball. And carry the ball. And catch the ball.

“It’s pretty different,” said wide receiver Jacob Forrey, who returns as the team’s top returning skill player (25 catches for 329 yards and two touchdowns). “It’s just about finding guys spots and teaching them everything we know and fire on all cylinders come game time. We’ll get experience in our scrimmage and in practice, and we’ll work hard every day to get them up to speed.”

What the Cougars have figured out so far is their man at quarterback: senior Freedom Hunt. In limited time last year, Hunt was 13-for-37 for 139 yards and three interceptions. He’ll replace Kurt Gadient, who completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 1,696 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. 

“He’s got a lot to learn but he’s coming along,” Cougars head coach Willie Rauen said of Hunt. “It’s a little slower process because it’s his first year doing it quite extensively. After a few games, he should have it down pretty well.”

While Gadient was a drop-back passer last year, Hunt hopes to bring some added athleticism as the team’s signal-caller.

“We’ll have a lot more speed in our offense and do some more dynamic things,” Hunt said. “We won’t be just one-dimensional with the pass.”

Behind Hunt, Z-M has to replace its leading rusher from a year ago, Jacob Tschann (690 yards on 145 carries, seven touchdowns). Early on, Rauen will test players Tyler Poncelet and Devin Manzy, among others.

“It’s going to be a revolving door,” Rauen said, “especially early, because we have to figure out who’s going to be back there for us.”

There are two certainties to the Cougars’ offense. First, Forrey will be the team’s top playmaker.

“Jacob Forrey is the only guy who played significantly on offense at a skill position,” Rauen said, “so we’re going to have to find ways, especially early, to get him the ball as much as possible.”

The other positive comes on the offensive line, where four of the team’s starters from a year ago are back, led by three-year starter Connor Hegseth.

“We’re pretty confident in those guys,” Hegseth said. “They’re working hard, and it’ll be nice having most of our offensive line back to anchor around that and get them going.”

Rauen added, “What we’re going to have to rely on is for those guys to set the tone and give Freedom time to throw and open some lanes for our backs to go through. We’ll be a work in progress with some younger kids having to play and learning all the different things they need to learn.”

That same experience on the offensive line is something Z-M hopes will translate on the defensive end after the Cougars allowed 30.1 points per game in 2013.

“Because we are pretty heavily dominated with linemen, we can get a better rotation and get those guys some rest,” Rauen said. “Playing both ways on the line can wear them out a little bit.”

Poncelet returns to the defense after leading Z-M with 100 tackles last year, along with two sacks.

“He makes all the calls for the D-linemen and the linebackers, and he gets them all in the right position,” Rauen said about Poncelet. “He struggled with it early on (last year), but as the year went on he got better at it. Now having him back as a second-year guy, that’s been a great help.”

The defense also looks for a run-stopping boost from corners Forrey, Jerrell Guider and Bailey Berg, along with safeties Hunt, Isaiah Stueber and Maverick Jackson.

“We’ll play downhill and aggressive,” Poncelet said of the team’s front seven. “We’ll meet ‘em in the hole, but we need to be the hammer and not the nail. We’re doing more form tackling (in practice) so we’ll hopefully get less injuries.”

With just 12 letter winners returning and seven juniors on the roster, the key to the Cougars’ success will come down to how quickly the team’s inexperienced players can get up to speed.

“They’re picking it up pretty good,” Forrey said. “They’re not quite fully there yet, but with more practice, they’ll get it down.”

Joe Brown

Joe Brown is the sports editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, he worked at the Marshall Independent and the St. Cloud Times. For updates on local sports, follow Joe on Twitter at @RE_JBrown.

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