The varsity football team has a new coach, a new defensive strategy and is playing without its two-time, all-state running back Terrell Porter, who has graduated.
So, have the Bears lowered their expectations? Not even a little bit.
“You don’t hear people saying, 'What if we make the playoffs?' We have people saying, 'What if we make it to Ford Field this year?' ” running back and linebacker Omar Sitto said.
Filling the void left by Porter isn’t going to be easy. How does a team replace a running back who scored more than 30 touchdowns and ran for 1,500 yards?
“You can’t just replace a guy with that kind of talent with one player,” coach Jeff Burnside said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Porter helped make Berkley one of the top-scoring teams in the Oakland Activities Association Blue Division. The Bears scored more than 50 points three times and, in two other games, scored more than 40 points.
Coaches and players agreed that replacing Porter wasn’t going to be left to one running back. A group of Bears players will be responsible for trying to generate that kind of production on offense.
Burnside is going to rely on a rotation of seniors Markeis Hampton, Sitto and Jason Taylor at the position.
“It’s going to take an entire unit to replace a guy that went all-state for two straight years,” Taylor said. “This year is going more of a team effort. People think we have less talent, but I think we have more talent.”
No one questioned how important Porter was to the team’s success during the past two seasons, but there was a sense of excitement that one player wouldn’t be dominating the game this season.
“There’s no pressure on one player,” Hampton said. “We have four or five guys that are going to be touching the play throughout the game. We all have a chance to make an impact on the game this year.”
Burnside isn’t making sweeping changes to the offense in his first year, but he admits his preference for running the option. There just wasn’t enough time during the offseason to make that kind of drastic switch, he said, especially since the team had an open competition for the starting quarterback job.
The Bears will focus on stretching the field horizontally and vertically with their team speed.
“We know our offensive stuff really well right now,” Burnside said. “We have the stuff really well-positioned.”
Getting into the zone
Burnside’s background as assistant at Novi High School was coaching the defense, so he’s a very defensive-minded coach. He came to Berkley with ideas for what scheme he wanted to put in place, but nothing was set in stone.
“The coaches came in and didn’t have set formations at first,” Sitto said. “They told us we are running the offense and defense around you guys.”
The coaching staff spent a few months in the offseason going over game film from the previous year. They also spent a lot of time getting a feel for the talent level on the team.
“I like a very aggressive defense, but it all depends on the players you have,” Burnside said.
Berkley’s defense relied almost entirely on man coverage last year. When Burnside saw the amount of team speed the Bears possessed, he was comfortable with moving away from it.
A lot of time at offseason practices and camps was dedicated to switching from man coverage to zone.
“I’m a guy that believes it’s easier to defend the quarterback with 11 sets of eyes on him,” Burnside said. “You want to see the quarterback cause he’s the only one that can throw interceptions. And also, to me, it’s helpful in the run defense: When you are playing man, you’re basically blocked all the time.”
The zone defense should help the team generate more turnovers, he said. Burnside believes a defense that can score points will be another way Berkley can replace Porter’s production.
Players have responded to the changes with a lot of enthusiasm.
“It’s so much better than playing man on every single down and play,” Hampton said. “You can see the entire field. It’s been great for me cause I can understand the game a lot more. It’s also better for us to make plays, get more interceptions and turnovers this way.”
That’s not to say the changes have been easy. A lot of hard work is going into learning the plays and how to read offenses. The most difficult aspect for players who have started on varsity for a couple of years has been abandoning instincts they’ve relied on for multiple seasons.
“As a linebacker, I was used to just eyeing the running back or the tight end, you just run right at him,” Sitto said. “Now you have to have a little hesitation and wait for who comes in the zone.”
Sitto quickly added that the defense will be ready for Berkley’s season opener Friday at home against Ferndale.