Mike Magistrelli is changing up his St. Ambrose football team.
The fifth-year coach is moving to a pistol formation on offense to provide more protection to sophomore quarterback Eric Williamson, both in blocking schemes and increased production in the running game.
Williamson, who goes 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, was 5-for-10 for 58 yards and two interceptions in limited action as a freshman last year.
Magistrelli ticked off Williamson's decision-making and accuracy as his best assets, though the Bees coach said the sophomore is not lacking in the arm-strength department either.
"It was a decision we made in spring practice," Magistrelli said. "It was a difficult decision. We take a guy who's played, had success and move him out of that position and put in a young guy. It was a tough decision, but it was one of those decisions that you look back on now and, boy, we made the right one."
As a by-product of installing Williamson as the starter, last year's signal caller Barney O'Donnell moves back to wide receiver.
"When he (Magistrelli) first told me, I had the same answer as when I first came here, and that's anything I can do to be a playmaker on offense," O'Donnell said. "I'm confident I can do that. As time went on with spring ball and training camp this summer I've become more and more confident with my abilities."
As for his replacement, O'Donnell said Williamson has "a cool, calm, Tom Brady-like swagger in the pocket."
"I'm more comfortable with (the offense) this year as opposed to last year," Williamson said. "Last year we had four wide-outs, one back and there wasn't a lot of protection in third-and-long situations. Transitioning into this new pistol offense, I like it, because it gives you a little more time to throw."
Providing that time will be an offensive line that returns eight linemen who started at one point or another, providing depth and experience to help counterbalance the inexperience at the skill positions on offense. Magistrelli plans to employ a quartet of running backs, highlighted by speedster Anton Wilkins, a transfer from Southern Illinois.
The defense also underwent a bit of an overhaul.
Gone is the entire starting defensive line from last year in Magistrelli's 3-4 alignment.
Also helping deplete the line is the position change of former Bettendorf Bulldog Pete Kalber, who Magistrelli called his most improved player. He'll slide back to outside linebacker after spending last season at defensive end.
Leading tackler Tyler Boyle graduated and his spot in the middle will be manned by a combination of Andrew Briones, from Rock Island Alleman and fellow senior Adrian Leal.
Seemingly the one area that remains reminiscent of last season is the defensive backfield, which is anchored by cornerback James Hannah-White and senior safety John Michaletti, a Rock Island Alleman product.
The personel changes might be the most visible, but the coaching staff has made other alterations to try and ward off the on-field troubles that plagued the team last season.
Of the five losses Ambrose suffered in 2010, the Bees had fourth-quarter leads in three of them, two in the last 2 minutes.
"Coach has put in new drills specifically just for that," Michaletti said. "We've got to condition more to get our guys in shape. I feel that will keep our guys healthy as well."
Those losses left the Bees with a bad taste in their mouths.
"It was obvious if you saw the game that we had a hard time finishing. Point blank. Period," O'Donnell said. "We don't want to see games like that slip away."
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One of the new faces on the retooled defensive line is nose tackle Sean Santiago, a transfer from the University of Sioux Falls. The Cougars won two national titles while Santiago started for them, and Ambrose coach Mike Magistrelli can already see that work ethic rubbing off on his players.
"He's brought that intensity, that consistency to our program in terms of way we need to do things all the time," Magistrelli said.
Santiago isn't the only transfer that the coaching staff sees making an impact. Defensive end Cory Price comes in from Truman State and Magistrelli counts him as his best pass rusher.
Last season Barney O'Donnell was known for scrambling out of, and at times in to, trouble at the quarterback position. New starter Eric Williamson isn't as much of a runner as his predecessor, preferring to stay in the pocket, but that doesn't mean he can't get away when he has to.
"I joked with him yesterday at practice that when things break down, he runs just fast enough to get away," Magistrelli said. "He's not a guy that will run a great 40 time, but its tough to catch him at the same time."
The Bees head into the season next week fully healthy, minus a few bumps and scrapes. Offensive lineman Joe Bailey, who started the first three games last season before missing significant time with a leg injury, is back this season.
The four main backs Ambrose will be employing isn't without a little mystery. Two are freshmen, Colten Glazebrook and Greg Wilson, one is a transfer from Southern Illinois in Anton Wilkins and the fourth played defensive back for the Bees last year, Cole Kelly.
Despite that, the coaching staff is expecting big things from those who carry the ball.
"We feel like we've got four talented running backs and four kids that are as talented as we've had since I've been here," Magistrelli said.