MORRISTOWN - Entering his first season as coach at his alma mater, Bruce Stiles is learning on the fly at Union Local.
The 1981 graduate is also learning of all the challenges that face a rookie head coach. He served on the St. Clairsville staff the last nine seasons, most recently as defensive coordinator.
"Introducing the kids to a new program is never easy," he said. "But they are buying into it and they're working really hard.
"The biggest challenge has been teaching the kids how to win and how to expect to win. Sometimes when things aren't going real well kids don't understand what it takes to win. That's what we've been trying to instill over the summer, along with mental toughness and doing things the right way.''
Winning hasn't come easy the last three seasons as Union Local has won once in its last 30 contests.
"The kids' attitudes have been really good," Stiles said. "I can't complain about that. The kids are understanding what they have to do in the structure of the new program."
The Jets return 17 lettermen from a 1-9 squad.
"A lot of underclassmen were forced into action last year due to a tremendous number of injuries," Stiles said. "Hopefully, that experience will play off for us down the road."
Among that group are seven seniors - Eric Dunfee, Nathan Ferda, Mason Friede, Travis James, Jake Leishman, Brandon Rutter and Zac Sowers.
"It's a small class, but they've really bought into the program. We're working on their leadership skills, leading by example and stuff like that," Stiles said. "They've been a positive group all the way through. They're learning how the program is going to work, and they're doing a nice job so far.''
Dunfee, Friede, Ferda and James will be back for their third season as lettermen. Pritts, Blake and Ware will be two-year letterwinners. Leishman, who missed last season, lettered as a sophomore.
As far as starting lineups go, Stiles admitted there are no positions etched into stone.
"Right now all the positions are open. None are picked," he stressed two days before official practice began in early August. "This being my first year, I've seen some of the kids in the weight room working really hard, but as far as starters, that's still up in the air until we put pads on and see who steps up.
"We've got a couple of players in mind for certain positions. But some guys look like Tarzan in the weight room, and then play like Jane on the field."
When Stiles took over the program late last year following Mark Cisar stepping down after seven seasons, it appeared the Jets had some veteran skilled players returning, including their starting quarterback (junior Gavin Porter) and a standout receiver (sophomore Kaleb McDiffitt). However, neither are a part of the team, according to the coach.
"We had a couple of players quit earlier in the preseason, but we've moved on," Stiles said. "We aren't looking in the past because that's what it is ... the past."
Porter completed 98 of 205 passes for 1,060 yards in limited action as a freshman starter last season. He tossed five TDs and was intercepted 11 times while also running for 294 yards and three scores on 122 carries. McDiffitt landed 32 passes for 457 yards and five scores.
To compound issues at quarterback, talented sophomore Trenton Tipton, who could have stepped into the role, has been lost for the season with knee surgery to correct an ACL tear he suffered during basketball last winter.
"We wish Trenton the best," Stiles said of the 6-foot-4, 175-pounder. "The good thing is that he's going to stick around and help us out."
Tipton saw some playing time as a freshman, running for 31 yards and a TD on 11 carries.
Battling for the quarterback spot are James (5-11, 170), sophomore Bobby Stewart (5-8, 140) and promising freshman Shane Smolenak (5-6, 125).
"Travis has never played quarterback, but he and the other two are really working hard," Stiles said. "All three will probably see playing time."
According to the coach, who played collegiately at Salem College as a cornerback, the offensive line will be the Jets' strong point early on.
"We've got some really good size up front, both offensively and defensively," he said. "Offensively, our line is going to be our strongest point to start."
During Cisar's tenure, the Jets started throwing the ball when they left the lockerroom and didn't quit.
"We'll do whatever we have to in order to win," Stiles said. "If that means running the football, then that's what we'll do. If we have to throw passes, we'll do that as well.
"The biggest thing with our offensive line is that they need to learn how to run block. With nothing against the prior staff, they threw the ball 40-50 times a game and basically all the linemen did was pass block."
Anchoring the offensive line will be mammoth tackles Colton McKivitz and David Paulick. McKivitz is a 6-7, 240-pound returning letterman, while Paulick is a 6-4, 234-pound sophomore.
"Colton has really come on," Stiles said. "He's just a raw kid that has a lot of upside to him. He is a nice kid that has a mean streak in him.
"Paulick is another big boy that started out as a tight end but has been moved to tackle. He doesn't have much experience, but like Colton, he has a lot of upside."
Others in the mix for starting spots on are Rutter (5-8, 210); juniors Bryan Bannan (6-6, 230) and Eric Haverty (5-11, 185); sophomores Patrick Abboud (6-1, 180), Colton Burnheimer (6-3, 190), returning letterman Jacob Fijalkowski (5-11, 230), Jacob Johnson (6-0, 240) and Tristan Price (5-10, 260); and freshmen Cory Jones (5-9, 150), T.J. Kelley (5-10, 173), Nate Stubbs (5-9, 175) and Josh Taylor (5-9, 200).
When the ball is handed off, a bevy of experienced running backs will get the call.
Those will include Leishman (5-11, 180); juniors Tater Blake (5-8, 175), Nick Pritts (5-11, 220) and Spencer Ware (5-9, 155); and sophomore Joey Brown (5-9, 165).
Leishman played a lot as a sophomore, carrying 22 times for 97 yards. Blake has accumulated 150 yards and a touchdown on 43 carries, while Ware has rushed for 101 yards and a scord on a dozen attempts.
"We have some experience at the running back position and we're going to put the ball in their hands early and often," Stiles said.
Others seeking playing time will be sophomores Nik Lemasters (5-7, 145) and Dale Mann (5-7, 145) and Matt McFarland (5-9, 170); and freshmen Nick Bilyeu (5-7, 150), Devin Crum (5-8, 140) and Brian McWhorter (5-5, 128).
Dunfee (6-0, 180) will be the top target when UL looks to air it out. He has caught 45 passes for 518 yards and a touchdown. Blake has 17 receptions for 136 yards, while Ware had landed 14 passes for 139 yards.
Also in the mix will be seniors Ferda (5-10, 170) and Zac Sowers (5-8, 150); junior John Howell (6-0, 135); sophomores Seth Anderson (5-7, 120) and Demitree Turner (6-1, 175); and freshmen Josh Bolyard (5-11, 150), Jamie Kelich (5-7, 110) and Isaiah McCloe (5-9, 115).
"Spencer Ware is a good wideout and Stewart will take some reps at wide receiver," Stiles said. "Dunfee will line up at either tailback or wideout. He's our most versatile player. He's a good athlete."
The tight ends are Friede (5-11, 170) and Isaac Goodson (5-11, 165).
"Goodson had a real nice summer," Stiles noted.
Stiles said he won't change much on defense.
"We've got a good nucleus of players returning," he said. "That will definitely help out."
The front will be led by ends McKivitz and Paulik, who will be backed up by Abboud, Stubbs and Burnheimer. Pritts and Price are listed as tackles, while Bannan, Fijalkowski, Haverty, Johnson, Jones, Kelley, Rutter and Taylor are listed as down linemen.
The inside linebackers are Blake, Friede, Brown, Lemasters and McFarland, while outside are Ferda, Leishman, Goodson, Mann, Bilyeu and Bolyard.
Manning the cornerback slots are Ware, Turner, Sowers, McWhorter, McCloe, Kelich, Howell, Crum and Anderson. Dunfee will be the free safety with Smolenak as his backup. The strong safeties are James and Stewart.
"We've had to make some adjustments in our secondary due to injuries and defections," Stiles said. "That has been a work in progress."
Billy Timko has been brought aboard as the special teams coach, something that Stiles said is very important.
"We've got a guy in Billy who will concentrate solely on special teams," Stiles said. "I think he will be a great addition to our staff."
Dunfee figures to be the starting punter, while he and Stewart will share the kicking duties.
When Stiles looks across the field Friday in his first varsity contest in Woodsfield against Monroe Central, he will facing a coach, Jay Circosta, embarking on his 42nd season.
"Coach Circosta has had a winner for years and years," Stiles said. "I'm excited about playing them in Week 1 because they are a quality program. It should prove as a good measuring stick for us."
The Jets will open the Buckeye 8 portion of their schedule in Week 2 at Buckeye Local. That will be followed by a home game against Barnesville before UL hits the road for encounters at Harrison Central and Edison. Four consecutive home games await the Jets as Martins Ferry, Indian Creek, Shadyside and Bellaire visit Jets Stadium before a season-ending contest at St. Clairsville.
"I like our schedule," Stiles said. "We don't have any really bad road trips, except to Edison, but four of our first five games are on the road. That will be tough early on."
When talking about his staff, Stiles smiled from ear to ear.
"I'm ecstatic about the staff I've put together," he said. "Most of them are holdovers from the previous staff, but we've added a few guys and we have some volunteers helping us out."
Mike Menges will serve as the defensive coordinator and tight ends coach, while Vaughn Butler will coach the defensive backs and receivers. Pec Schmitt will serve as offensive coordinator and strong safeties coach. Brion Schiappa coaches the offensive and defensive lines. John Kutcher will help with the lines.
The junior high staff includes head coach Eric Kerns. Kevin Spiker is an eighth grade coach. Ryan Kutcher and Zach Delman are seventh grade coaches. Jeremy Eberhart and Erick Neilson are assistants.
Jake Boyd serves as equipment manager and Cary Schmitt as game field manager.
Eric Dunfee, Nathan Ferda, Mason Friede, Travis James, Jake Leishman, Brandon Rutter, Zac Sowers.
Bryan Bannan, Tater Blake, Eric Haverty, John Howell, Colton McKivitz, Nick Pritts, Spencer Ware.
Patrick Abboud, Seth Anderson, Joey Brown, Colton Burnheimer, Jacob Fijalkowski, Isaac Goodson, Jacob Johnson, Nik Lemasters, Dale Mann, Matt McFarland, David Paulick, Tristan Price, Bobby Stewart, Trenton Tipton, Demitree Turner.
Nick Bilyeu, Josh Bolyard, Devin Crum, Cory Jones, Jamie Kelich, T.J. Kelley, Isaiah McCloe, Brian McWhorter, Shane Smolenak, Nate Stubbs, Josh Taylor.