By definition, coach Rocky Martin’s Norman High football program is rebuilding.
Gone is the class, led by quarterback Cade Horton, that made the Tigers competitive again, taking them to the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
Despite rebuilding, what NHS appeared to prove Friday night at Harve Collins Field, taking on Stillwater in their lone preseason scrimmage, is whatever level the program settles on this season, it should be well ahead of the of where it found itself prior to the matriculation of last season’s seniors.
“We’ve got a lot of dogs on our team,” said wide receiver Jaden Bray, who was terrific and not only when catching the football.
By “dogs,” he meant competitors, and it showed Friday in a 21-14 “loss” to the Pioneers, a “game” that consisted of two quarters of game simulation, kickoffs and punt returns aside.
Though a Class 6A-II program, Stillwater went all the way to the state title game last season, falling 40-36 to an unbeaten Bixby team that routed Jenks, and pretty much everybody else, in the regular season.
Speaking after the game, Clark admitted being pleased, but tempered that pleasure by saying “there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve got to do better.”
Yet, moments earlier, addressing his team, his excitement was palpable.
“First time live, a lot of great stuff. That’s a great football team,” he said, complimenting Stillwater. “First time live, people don’t know what we’ve got.”
What the Tigers appear to have, at least, is a fantastic receiver in Bray, a home-run threat running back in Taylor Harris and a defense able to hang with what appeared to be a top-notch Stillwater offense.
Though the Tigers fell by seven points, one fumble may have cost them a touchdown, coming inside the Pioneer 15-yard line, while another gave up a touchdown, coming inside their own 5.
Both fumbles belonged to sophomore Tias McClarty, who was seeing his first game action as a varsity quarterback. Despite that, he offered veteran command enough to draw Stillwater offsides four different times, infuriating the Pioneers’ defensive staff.
Learning on the job, McClarty knows he has some real weapons.
Bray only caught one pass that actually counted, on a fade route in the top left corner of the end zone he had to go up and fight for, forging the final score.
Yet, the play before, he made a catch that was twice as difficult, just out of bounds, because that’s where the ball was thrown.
“When we need a big play, I feel like I’m the guy to make it,” said Bray, who was playing in front of his future collegiate coach, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, who watched from he press box. “I see myself as a leader out on the field. I feel great that they have the confidence in me to throw it up and let me go get the ball.”
The Pioneers appeared to understand all too well what Bray’s capable of doing, committing 40 yards in penalties — two interference calls and one defensive holding — trying to stop him.
“It’s because of how he works,” Martin said. “Watch him when he doesn’t have the ball.”
The running back
Taylor Harris didn’t enjoy several long runs, only a couple, yet it was enough to wonder how often NHS might spring him into the open field when the games start counting.
He scored the Tigers’ first touchdown, breaking through the line and leaving the other 21 players on the field well behind, racing 63 yards to paydirt.
On another try, he slipped through and was off and running for 29 yards in a blink.
“He’s had really good practices,” Martin said. “We knew that’s what we could get out of him.”
A junior, Harris didn’t get to touch the ball much last season, playing behind senior Joe Willie. Thursday, he looked like a legitimate threat.
“He runs hard every single play,” McClarty said.
Prior to scrimmaging for two quarters, the Tigers and Pioneers traded series of offensive snaps with each other. Over 13 Stillwater snaps, NHS allowed four carries of 9 or more yards and three receptions of 12 or more yards, including one 40-yard touchdown.
Still, NHS defense improved as the night wore on, forcing three punts out of the Pioneers on the scrimmage began.
But for a 41-yard carry on Stillwater’s first play of the scrimmage and a 47-yard touchdown pass, NHS allowed less than 150 yards over 38 other snaps.
“We played well,” Martin said of his defense. “I thought we were aggressive. I thought we played pretty fast.”
One week before the Crosstown Clash, back on NHS’ campus for the first time in years, the Tigers appeared to offer much to look forward to.