New Woodland Hills coach expects big, athletic line to pave way to success

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Thursday, August 10, 2023 | 11:16 PM


Woodland Hills football is well known for the wide receivers, running backs and defense backs who migrated from Friday nights to Saturdays and eventually Sunday afternoons.

There’s an occasional tight end, fullback or defensive end too, but when it comes to skill-position talent, the Wolverines are always among the best of the WPIAL. And, yes, this year’s roster again has plenty of speed, but new coach Brian Tarrant might be more excited about the number of big-bodied blockers he has.

Any why wouldn’t he be? History shows that having size is vital for winning in Class 5A.

“We’re huge up front,” Tarrant said. “We’ll probably play behind and through our offensive line.”

Those five linemen average more than 270 pounds, led by left tackle Antonio Nash (6-3, 290), right tackle Pierce Cannon (6-4, 295) and center Marcus Williams (6-3, 313), all seniors. The guards are Jayden Estes (6-2, 245) and Charles Harper (6-1, 220), two juniors who move well.

Add in the experience of senior tailback Brandon Jones, and the Wolverines see the makings of a reliable ground game.

“We’ll be a power offense,” Tarrant said. “We’ll spread it out a little bit as much as we can, but ultimately we’re going to be a two-back offense. We’ll hand that ball off and try to win the line of scrimmage as much as possible.”

On the defensive side, they’ve got tackle Mejaun Rose (6-5, 290), a senior with an Akron offer. Cannon lists Akron, Syracuse and Kent State.

“We’re really big up front,” Tarrant said, “but we’re also athletic as well.”

Tarrant was hired in January to coach a team that went 6-6 a year ago and reached the WPIAL semifinals. He isn’t a Woodland Hills alum but was born in Braddock and grew up in nearby Wilkinsburg, so he’s no stranger to the area.

He’s also familiar with 5A football, having spent five seasons as defensive coordinator at Penn Hills and one at Shaler. He worked last fall as cornerbacks coach at Cal (Pa.), his college alma mater.

He’s only the third head coach in Woodland Hills history. Instilling discipline was his first priority, he said, noting that teams that commit penalties and make mistakes don’t win.

“I feel like we didn’t have a major football problem here,” Tarrant said. “We may have had some leadership problems or some conduct issues that found their way on the field. On Friday night, it’s about minimizing your penalties and eliminating your mistakes.”

Recent WPIAL 5A champions can attest to that truth. Neither Pine-Richland last season nor Penn-Trafford the year before was a team that hurt itself much. Both went on to win state titles.

But what they also had in common were big, physical linemen and good running games.

Woodland Hills had two rushers with around 500 yards each last season. One leading rusher graduated, but Jones, who returns, was the other. The 5-8, 185-pound back had 509 yards and five touchdowns on 101 carries.

“We’re expecting big things out of him and out of our run game,” Tarrant said. “He’s a tremendously talented and tremendously hardworking kid.”

Woodland Hills has talent in the passing game, too, but many of its playmakers there are young. Scoop Smith was the leading receiver as a freshman a year ago, and the quarterback was freshman Cam Walter, who passed for 1,011 yards.

Smith had 30 catches and eight touchdowns, earning first-team all-conference honors.

“We’re going to get the ball to him as much as possible,” Tarrant said. “We’re hoping for huge things from him this year.”

Tarrant will oversee the team’s defense, which is shifting to a 4-3 scheme. He said senior linebacker Andre Smith, a team captain, is a leader on that side of the ball.

The Wolverines shut out three opponents a year ago and held another to a field goal. They lost to eventual champion Pine-Richland, 23-12, in the WPIAL semifinals.

“The community is really behind this team,” Tarrant said. “Everybody is yearning and wanting and expecting us to be the former (championship) team that we were. … We’re anxious to put a good product out there.”

Woodland Hills

Coach: Brian Tarrant

2022 record: 6-6, 3-2 in Class 5A Northeast Conference

All-time record: 269-142-0

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.25 Central Catholic, 7

9.1 Gateway*, 7

9.8 Penn-Trafford*, 7

9.15 at North Hills, 7

9.22 Norwin*, 7

9.30 at Shaler, 1:30

10.6 at Highlands, 7

10.13 Fox Chapel, 7

10.20 Pine-Richland, 7

10.27 at Penn Hills, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Cam Walter

86-183, 1,011 yards, 8 TDs

Rushing: Frank Keyes*

112-546 yards, 10 TDs

Receiving: Scoop Smith

30-455 yards, 8 TDs

FAST FACTS

• Coach Brian Tarrant was defensive coordinator at Penn Hills, when the Indians won WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A championships in 2018. He also coached at Wilkinsburg, Northgate, Shaler and Pine-Richland.

• Tarrant earned all-PSAC West honors as a standout defensive back at Cal (Pa.) in 1999.

• Woodland Hills has five WPIAL titles with the most recent won in 2009. The other came in 2002, ’01, 1999 and ’96. All came under coach George Novak.

• Scoop Smith lists Division I college offers for both football (Nebraska, Toledo, UNLV) and basketball (Stony Brook).

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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