VANDALIA — As the John Puckett era begins at Butler this fall, there’s a buzz of anticipation as the Aviators kick off the 2018 football season.
Coming off a disappointing campaign a season ago that left the Aviators 4-6 overall and in fourth place at 2-3 in the Greater Western Ohio Conference American North division, there was a sense that something was awry.
Enter Puckett with his “black flag” mentality and high intensity level and add in a talented, though thin football team, and the Aviators are looking to regain their footing after a pair of years not contending for a league title or playoff birth.
Puckett’s impact was immediately felt in off-season workouts. He has learned a lot about his team.
“I’ve learned we have a great group of kids, they have worked really hard, and they care about each other,” said Puckett. “We had about a 96% attendance rate in the weight room this summer. The kids are committed and they have kept their commitments.”
Puckett said he has learned things about coaching as well given this is his first head coaching job. He came to Butler as the defensive coordinator at Centerville and has also coached at Goose Creek High School, Hamilton, Richmond (IN), and Chaminade-Julienne. He was inducted into the CJ Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I’ve had to learn to be more big-picture oriented, have had to stay one step ahead all the time which is a change from being on just one side of the ball,” he said. “I’m having to worry about things I’ve never had to worry about before like practice schedules, coaches getting used to my style, etc.”
Puckett said Butler’s program is built on everyone – coaches and players alike – making a commitment to each other.
“Everyone, including myself, has to stand in front of everyone else and say what they are going to do to make this a better football team,” he said. “But we also hold everyone accountable to that. I’m just as hard on our coaches as I am our players. That starts with me – if I’m not getting what I want out of the coaches, I start with me first. If things aren’t going well we want to look at ourselves first before we start pointing fingers at others.”
Besides a culture shift, the Aviators also return a significant amount of talent and experience. Puckett said the key to everything is line play. Charlie Dent, Dillon Buchanan, Ben Sipos, and Jacob Calvert are expected to see the lions share of snaps on the offensive line.
“For us, it all starts and ends up front,” he said. “They allow us to do things that we want to do instead of what we have to do. They are learning how to play physical and they really like it. Those kids are invaluable to us.”
Calling the signals will be returning starter Mason Motter while Ryan Martin and Jack Akers will share the running back duties.
“He (Martin) and Akers are going to be really good this year,” said Puckett. “They are bigger, heavier backs with pretty good speed and they fight, crawl, and scratch to compete for yards. We won’t be trying to hit a home run every time – we like grinding people down. We want to turn it into where we impose our will on people.”
Connor Hendricks and Nick Murphy will line up as slot receivers
“They both have pretty good speed, they are strong, they have good hands, and will get out there and mix it up blocking,” Puckett said.
Deeper threats will be Bryant Johnson and Blake Ross. Alex Joynes will back up Motter while also seeing time at receiver. Luke Mitchell will play quarterback at the freshman level.
“Skill players-wise, we are as good as anyone else in the GWOC,” said Puckett. “I will put Mason Motter up against any other quarterback in the league. He is mentally tough, physically tough. Our skill players are as good as anyone in the league.”
Dent, Buchanan, Grant Grisez at nose guard, Jalen Applegarth, Sipos, Calvert, talented freshmen Ryan Logan and James Reid will all share time on the defensive line. Akers Bobby Buckler, who will play outside linebacker, will have a big impact according to Puckett.
“Our two outside linebackers are long and athletic which is good,” he said.
Key will be the play of inside linebackers Mike Masters and Nick Coyle.
“Masters has tremendous instincts and a nose for the ball,” said Puckett. “He’s around it all the time. When the ball is snapped, he goes non-stop 100 miles per hour until the whistle is blown.
“Nick Coyle is our leader and anchor on defense. He’s tough, extremely physical, a big-limbed kid with long arms and big hands. I’m excited for him. He sets the tone for us.”
Gavin Casella and Nick Murphy will play safety.
“Gavin plays the ball really well in the air and he gets us set up in the right way,” he said. “He’s extremely athletic. Murphy plays one of the harder positions on our defense as far as phyically challenging. He’s a tremendous athlete.”
Butler’s two corners are projected to be Alex Joynes and Cameron Miller.
“They are long and tall and extremely athletic,” said Puckett. “They are both good baseball players which helps because we use similar movements. They are also very competitive and given the fact they are in man to man coverage, you versus them, that’s a good thing. They are only going to get better because they go against BJ (Johnson) every day.”
Andrew Boren will handle most of the kicking duties including punts, extra points, and field goals.
“He’s got a really strong leg,” said Puckett. “He likes being in the moment. He has a chance to really flip the field for us.”
The Aviators will open the season on the road at Harrison, the first game in a two-year series. The Wildcats are a perennial playoff team and went 8-3 a year ago.
“Traditionally they are big and physical and have a very good football tradition there,” Puckett said. “It will be like walking into the lions den in Week 1, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s why our scrimmage schedule was so tough. We have to focus on us.”
Week 2 sees Butler travel to Tecumseh, a team they beat handily last year.
Week 3 the Aviators will welcome Wilmington in the home opener and the next week The Team Across the Dam (Northmont) returns for a Thursday Night Lights televised game. Butler will host Xenia before opening the final year of GWOC play.
League play will begin on the road at Greenville, then Butler will host Troy on October 5 for homecoming. Piqua will round out the home schedule before Butler travels to Sidney and Tipp City for the final two regular season games.
Puckett believes the Aviators can be competitive with every team on their schedule.
“We don’t take a back seat to anyone,” he said. “We really focus more on ourselves and how we are improving daily. I fully expect us to compete against anyone. The toughest team wins. The team that cares the most wins. Control what we can control.”
As a first time head coach, Puckett said that first Friday night will be special.
“It’s not every day that you get to live out what you’ve been dreaming about since you were a teenager,” he said. “You go through times when you think it isn’t going to happen because every time you interview for a job you come in second. Now, I’ve been given this opportunity, so it will be special. The best part of that is I get to spend it will all those special young men but also my dad. That’s pretty cool.”
Reach Darrell Wacker at (937) 684-8983 or on Twitter @VandaliaDrummer.