Time to take the field again

Monday morning meant only one thing for high school football players across the state: the start of a new football season.

For Mel Skillman and the nearly three dozen members of the Alpena High School varsity football team it marked a new beginning. Skillman begins his 47th year as a head coach and his tenure as the head of Alpena’s program.

“My wife asked me that (why I still coach) and I said, ‘I don’t hunt, we sold our house on the lake so I can’t fish anymore and I don’t play golf, so there’s not a lot left to do except coach football,'” Skillman said.

Skillman and the Wildcats kicked off the first day of football practice under blue skies and comfortable temperatures at the team practice fields, working on conditioning and position drills. Rather than having the two-a-day practices which are typical for a lot of teams early in the preseason, Alpena’s players will practice from 7-11 a.m. to beat the heat and to allow those athletes that have jobs to still have the opportunity to work in the afternoon.

The team spent a large part of the last hour of practice running plays and getting players into the right positions on the field and getting into the right formations for specific plays.

Skillman has installed a spread offense for this season, which means that even the most experienced players on the roster have a new system to learn.

The Wildcats hope Skillman’s offense will jumpstart a squad that averaged less than 10 points a game last season and players got a headstart learning its ins and outs during 7-on-7 sessions last month.

“It’s really tough. It’s a big adjustment to start off with all-new terminology. Each pass has its own number and the numbers change,” senior wide receiver Tim Atkinson said. “Being a senior, it’s little tough but it’s an adjustment that will hopefully pay off for us in the long run.”

After taking part in receiving drills, Atkinson, who will be an important two-way player for Alpena this season, split his time at cornerback and receiver when the team practiced plays. Senior quarterback Brady Marwede split time under center with junior Tyler Pintar.

Alpena’s assistant coaches instructed players on where to line up before plays, but Skillman called the offense into a huddle every so often to instruct them as well.

“We have to teach. On offense, the terminology is so much different from what they’re used to and you have to teach them what everything means, so that takes a little time,” Skillman said.

The Wildcats will run through a similar practice schedule for the next few days as players aren’t allowed to wear pads for the first four days of practice-a marked change from when Skillman began his coaching career at Beaverton in the late 1950s.

“It used to be you started the first day, you could wear full pads. So the first day you had a lot of hitting drills. because you had to teach them to be tough,” Skillman said. “We don’t do a lot of kill drills or smear each other anymore because we’re trying to stay healthy.”

Staying healthy will be important for the Wildcats without too much depth on the roster. The Wildcats have lost crucial players like Ryan Hendricks and Zach Nash to season-ending injuries in the preseason the last two years.

For seniors like Atkinson, Monday wasn’t just the first day of practice, it was also a chance to lead by example on the field as one of the team’s veterans.

“It’s great to be one of the seniors out here. You can be a leader when you’re younger, but now it’s different when you’re a senior,” Atkinson said. “You get a lot more respect and it’s tough knowing that your football days are kind of numbered after this.”

James Andersen can be reached via email at sports@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.