Success could start on defense, up front for Crookston this season

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Crookston football appears well-suited for a smashmouth style of play this year, with four returning starters along the offensive and defensive line and Ethan Boll at running back.

There's a tried-and-true formula for winning football games in northwest Minnesota.

It doesn't involve much passing. The entire operation of dropping back, throwing and catching consists of too many moving parts for many high school teams to consistently master. The early onset of wintry weather in this part of the country doesn't help matters.

Most teams here prefer to smash the ball down their opponents' throats instead. It's simpler and better-suited for the cold conditions and often muddy fields. And all it takes to do well is an able rusher or two and a strong offensive line.

Crookston coach Scott Butt thinks his team has both.

"We're not a throw-it-around type team," Butt said. "We pound it, pound it, pound it, and as the weather gets cooler and we might get some moisture, I think we're really built for pounding the ball down the field."

It starts up front, where the Pirates return four of their five starting linemen from last season. Center Brady Butt is off at Jamestown now, which means that junior Cade DeLeon will shift from guard to take his spot. Aside from that, the set-up is mostly the same, with junior Jacob Hesby slotting in alongside veterans Brooks Butt (Jr.), Greg Gonzalez (Sr.) and Jaren Bailey (So.).

"To have four out of five back, the learning curve is so much shorter," Butt said. "They know what we're doing, they wanna get off the ball, and they're bigger kids, which is nice. ... We're very fortunate to have some guys that have played some football for us up front."

Those returners will try to clear the way for Ethan Boll, who Butt described as a "horse." It's easy to see why. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 195 pounds as just a sophomore, Boll brings a scary combination of speed, power and instincts — tools which allowed him to rush for a team-high 714 yards and six touchdowns in 2019.

"He's a tough, tough kid," Butt said. "He's gonna make people miss, but he doesn't have any problem trying to run your rear end over, either. He's just a really well-put together athlete."

With relatively little time for teams to get up to speed after a long hiatus, offensive rhythm could be hard to find early on. That should be especially true for teams breaking in new schemes or players.

But the Pirates might be ahead of the curve — not just because they have a foundation, but because that foundation's in the right place.

If you have two quarterbacks...

This is in spite of the fact that Leyton Salentine, a three-year starter at quarterback for Crookston, graduated last season, taking 434 passing yards, 364 rushing yards and six total touchdowns with him. Salentine was the linchpin of the Pirates' attack, and for them to take full advantage of their returning players, they'll need to find a new triggerman to replace him.

For now, they have two. Senior Easton Tangquist will draw the start in Saturday's 1 p.m. season opener against Roseau. But junior Gunnar Gunderson should get his share of playing time as well.

The old saw is that if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none. Butt isn't worried about that, though, seeing as Tangquist and Gunderson bring complementary skills to the table.

"Easton is such a smart kid, really gets everybody together and controls everything, knows what he's doing, and he runs well," Butt said. "Gunnar throws the ball a little bit better. I think we can play them both and really help our team a lot."

Defense set to be a strength

Last week, Butt said that the Pirates' defense had been farther along than the offense to that point in practice. Part of that's due to having to move on from Salentine. Another reason is simply that Butt emphasized defensive drills more.

The biggest reason, though, is the core of returners — which, much like on offense, is tethered up front in Crookston's 4-4 system. Bailey, Boll, Brooks Butt and Gonzalez make up what could be a formidable defensive line. At inside linebacker, DeLeon and Jaxon Wang (Sr.) have started together for two years in a row.

"They've played an awful lot of football already. That's a huge deal," Butt said. "And up front, I really feel good about where we're at with our big guys."

Senior Zach Brown should anchor the Pirates' secondary at cornerback, while Gunderson will play safety. They'll play big roles, but the key to the defense is still along the line of scrimmages. If everything goes according to plan there, Butt hopes teams will be forced to challenge Brown and Gunderson.

"We're gonna play with three defensive backs and we're gonna crowd the line," Butt said. "The one thing we're gonna do, you're gonna see us bring a lot of pressure. We blitz probably more than we don't blitz. We're predicated on, we wanna stop the run and force you to throw the ball."

Other players to keep an eye on

One key on both sides of the ball will be ensuring Boll doesn't have too much on his plate, both as a runner and pass-rushing edge player. Butt expects to rotate players more on defense than on offense, meaning that everyone — including Boll — will get their breaks, but Boll will likely get more rest on special teams intead.

If Boll does need a break on offense, Butt likes sophomore running backs Braxton Volker and Hunter Knutson to spell him. At wide receiver, Butt thinks Brown is primed for a big year, while Tangquist and Gunderson — whoever isn't under center at the moment — will also play on the outside. Wang should provide physicality at fullback.

Wang will also shoulder the punting duties, while freshman Jake Erickson has "done a really good job" kicking, according to Butt.

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