Romeo — Jason Couch and Curt Rienas have made some drastic changes at Romeo the last couple of years, putting in a major overhaul on each side of the ball that has resulted in a run to the Division 1 state semifinals and a chance to play for the ultimate trophy next weekend at Ford Field.
Romeo (11-1) will face unbeaten Grand Ledge (12-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Brighton.
Couch and Rienas have been co-coaches at Romeo the past 13 years. The Bulldogs have been successful, earning 12 consecutive state playoff appearances, but never have won a regional until this season.
Couch, who runs the offense, decided to ditch the spread offense after Romeo was sent to the sidelines last year by Lapeer in a predistrict game, failing to move the ball through the air in windy and rainy conditions.
“A year ago at Lapeer we had 30 mile-per-hour winds and it was raining sideways and it’s tough to throw the ball in those conditions, so we decided we needed to have more of a running game,” Couch noted. “We spent a lot of time in the offseason developing it, a hybrid-ish of the wing-T. At first I was nervous and I thought we’d scrap it early on, and all of a sudden it starting clicking. I think the kids have gotten more comfortable with it and understand it a little more, as well as the coaches.
“We like to get to the corner with our jet action, but at the same time counter out of it and misdirection run the ball up the middle. I feel play-action has been big for us, at times, with (Paul) Hurley and (tight end Mitch) Heimbuch. And, we will at time use the spread because that’s what we had done up to this point.”
Hurley is a three-year starter at quarterback, throwing for 1,825 yards last season and 16 TDs, completing 65 percent of his passes. He has still been accurate despite not throwing as much, completing seven of nine passes in a 26-14 win over four-time MAC Red champion Macomb Dakota and 17 of 23 attempts for 240 yards in a 28-14 district semifinal win over two-time defending Division 1 state champion Clarkston.
Hurley has big weapons in senior receiver/running back Brad Tanner and the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Heimbuch, who has a TD reception in every postseason game. Tanner and Lucas Schimon do the bulk of the outside running with Dominic Bongiorno and Hunberto Flores working inside.
“We got knocked out last year because of our failure to run the ball in the playoffs,” Hurley said. “Coach told me he wanted to cut my passing by a third, and that’s not anything any quarterback wants to hear, but it’s gotten us here.
“My role has changed more into a game manager this year, just kind of more methodical drives, more first downs and moving the chains. We’re still trying shots downfield with play-action.”
While Hurley has yet to receive a college offer, Tanner recently received an offer from Ferris State and Heimbuch is a Western Michigan commit. Vanderbilt and Wake Forest coaches have been on hand to watch him in recent weeks, too.
“For someone like Paul who had been a predominantly passing quarterback, to accept a little bit more run-dominated offense I just think it displays his character,” Couch said. “He’s accepting of it and knows if we can establish the running game that it opens everything else up.”
Rienas made some big changes too, altering the system on the defensive front, resulting in Jacob Hernden (5-8, 185), Flores (5-7, 175) and Joey Meyers (5-9, 180) making a difference. Sure, they are small in size, but playing with huge heart and toughness.
“Last year after Week 2 we had two not great performances on defense and we weren’t controlling the line of scrimmage,” Rienas explained. “We didn’t have enough big kids because all of our big kids were playing both ways and it was just too much. So we decided to kind of change our philosophy defensively and win the line of scrimmage by attacking instead of hitting and holding and shedding.
“We had a tryout where we laid it out and said we were looking for guys who are tough, who can play with low pad level, can get beat down and get up and keep going. When the dust settled it was those three guys. The effort they play with has been the catalyst of our defense.”
Hernden recalls Rienas wanting to make a change last year.
“He mostly said he was really looking for really aggressive guys because that was one thing we were missing on the defensive line the first couple of games last year,” Hernden said. “Not playing much the first two games, I looked at it as an opportunity for me to show what I could do, and so during practice I gave it my all and ended up earning a starting spot.”
And it helps to have a linebacker like Heimbuch and a shutdown cornerback in the 6-2, 185-pound Tanner, who has 4.5 speed.
Heimbuch had high praise for Hernden, Flores and Meyers, saying: “They are animals. Everyone doubts them, too. Every team goes in saying how they’re just a bunch of 5-8, 180-pounders that we can just manhandle, and then they come out so physical and fast and it’s overwhelming for some kids.”
Tanner enjoys his role as the playmaker on both sides of the ball. He also returns kicks.
“On defense, they rely on me to lock down a receiver and take him out of the game so they don’t have to worry about him,” Tanner said. “On offense, be a leader and make a play early to set the tone. I love being in that role.”