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Published: Monday, 8/8/2011 - Updated: 4 years ago


The Whitmer football family

Father and son lead cohesive Panthers squad

Joe Palka is likely to name his son, Tyler, the starting quarterback. Joe Palka is likely to name his son, Tyler, the starting quarterback.
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Assistant Whitmer coach Justin Keller has put together a stellar resume in the relative short span of seven high school football seasons.

A former quarterback at Whitmer, Keller has been masterful in developing Panthers to excel at the same position, molding three quarterbacks into all-state selections -- J.J. Fought (2004), Donnie Dottei (2007), and Joe Missler (2009).

Then, in last year's playoffs, Keller helped senior quarterback Alex Palicki rise from a quarterback whose greatest attribute early in the season was keeping mistakes to a minimum into a playmaker.

Despite all of the good work he's done, Keller takes a back seat to his boss when it comes to the development of the program's latest quarterback. Head coach Joe Palka's son, Tyler, is a 6-foot, 170-pound junior that has an average arm, above average foot speed, and the benefit of years dissecting game film in the family room with his dad.

Tyler Palka, who backed up Palicki a year ago, is expected to beat out senior Tyler Smith to be the Panthers' week one starter against Start. Smith, whose body frame is similar to Palka's, has exhibited a strong arm during passing drills but so far has not been commissioned by the coaches to run the first-team offense. The odds are stacked against him.

PHOTO GALLERY: Whitmer High School football camp

"Knowing coach Palka, he'll be fair about it," Smith said. "I don't think he'll want to go from a final four [in 2010] to a worse season."

Palka, if he plays his son, and especially if Tyler struggles, is prepared to absorb criticism from community members.

"There's always going to be people negative about that and think he's only going to play because he's my son," Palka said.

Coach Palka doesn't coddle Tyler, though, which is obvious last Wednesday at practice. Three of Tyler's passes are deflected at the line of scrimmage by All-Ohio defensive end Chris Wormley, and the third one sends Tyler's old man over the edge.

"He's 6-foot-6," Palka yelled, while proving that swear words are part of his vocabulary for the first time this week. "Why are you throwing straight at him?"

When Tyler's play doesn't pick up, Palka tells him, in no uncertain terms, that he better win every single running sprint during conditioning drills.

"I think that's the best part," Tyler said. "He does it because he knows I can take it."

Coach Palka said later he regrets blowing up at his son the way he did but that he has always been tough on quarterbacks.

"I didn't need to go crazy like that," Palka said. "I have to strike a balance."

It might be unfair to scold any player, relative or otherwise, who looks bad when going against Chris Wormley.

Big Worm

In the same breath he used to ream his son, Palka offered the ultimate compliment to the creator of Wednesday's chaos, the 270-pound Big Worm, who is actually listed at 6-foot-7.

Above, Tyler Palka, left, meets with coach Justin Keller, along with quarterbacks Tyler Smith, second from left, and Tylor Schneider. Above, Tyler Palka, left, meets with coach Justin Keller, along with quarterbacks Tyler Smith, second from left, and Tylor Schneider.
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"Chris Wormley, you're the best D-end in America," Palka said in front of the team. "We can't block you."

Actually, Wormley is anywhere from the 16th to the 22nd best defensive end in the country, depending on who's list one looks at. But Wormley's three to four-star rating doesn't tell the whole story.

Those who slot a recruit at a certain ranking like to look at a prospect's 40-yard time and bench press, but above all else, they want to see which schools have offered him a scholarship. Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee all offered Wormley, a rarity that schools from the Southeastern Conference would poke their head up north to recruit a prospect when there is an abundance of talent nearby. Wormley declined their overtures almost immediately, telling Alabama's Nick Saban and Florida's Will Muschamp he wants to stay in the Midwest for college. Michigan fans will have him on their side next fall.

Wormley, private and humble, never informed analysts that these three programs, all which have won a national title in the Bowl Championship Series era, offered him a scholarship. Based on Wormley's body of work in the first three days of practice, one thing is obvious: there's no way 20 senior defensive ends living in this country are better than him. He destroys the right tackle on almost every play, sometimes using technique over power, and other times effortlessly shoving the blocker to the side. Wormley isn't big on his individual numbers, but if he can register 15 sacks and 90 tackles this year, he figures he'll have made a strong contribution to his team.

"Every chance I get against him is a chance for me to get better," said 6-1, 255-pound senior right tackle Brian Stamper, who remains upbeat despite manning the most undesirable job in camp.

On one play, Wormley reads the offense's call to be an end-around for receiver Alonzo Lucas and then waits for Lucas to take the handoff from Palka. Lucas, known to everyone by his nickname Texas, runs a 4.45-second 40-yard dash. But Wormley, a relay sprinter in the spring, moves laterally, mimicking Lucas' steps before making the stop behind the line of scrimmage. For Lucas, it's a good thing tackling is prohibited now, as teams have yet to start wearing full pads.

"He's not just talented and big, he's coachable and smart," defensive coordinator Greg Kubicki said of Wormley. "As talented as he is, his technique is pretty damn good too."

Wormley's chest and back extend forever, a physique 99 percent of grown men will never achieve. His hands will engulf yours, and his feet have sat in size 18 shoes since eighth grade. Chris Wormley is a man child. Better yet, Wormley is a man among manchildren.

When Wormley did make his college choice, selecting Michigan last Sunday, he did so before camp started so as not be a distraction to his teammates. "I'm hard pressed to find a better guy than Wormley," Palka said.

Make or break

From left, assistants Justin Keller, Brad Densmore, Ron Martin, Ken Winters, Wondell Hill, Mike Williams, and Jerry Bell spend a lot of their day together. Coaches arrive to camp at 6:45 a.m. and usually leave close to 6 at night. From left, assistants Justin Keller, Brad Densmore, Ron Martin, Ken Winters, Wondell Hill, Mike Williams, and Jerry Bell spend a lot of their day together. Coaches arrive to camp at 6:45 a.m. and usually leave close to 6 at night.
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Jody Webb showed up at Whitmer two years ago because "I wasn't doing well at Bowsher." Academically, Webb was having problems, and those problems still linger today as he enters an important year in his life. Webb, an all-state first team running back, is one of four seniors on the team who wants to play football in college but has not achieved the necessary academic requirements to do so.

"I let things on the football field come naturally," said Webb, whose 1,589 rushing yards in 2010 broke a school record. "But I have to work my butt off in the classroom. It doesn't come natural."

Webb (5-9, 170) will take the ACT next month and hopes to play collegiately at Tennessee, where his uncle Chuck Webb excelled 20 years ago, or Cincinnati.

If it doesn't work out for Webb, a roll-of-the-dice on junior college may await him.

Those on the team in a situation similar to Webb's are safety Mark Meyers, who is on the cusp of receiving a scholarship offer from Michigan State; Lucas, who is confident he'll pass through the NCAA clearinghouse if his GPA doesn't slip this year, and linebacker Jamar Ridley, whose scores could be a moot point as his football career appears to be over because of an enlarged heart.

"The doctor told us he could have dropped over at any time," said Ridley's uncle, James King, a former standout basketball player at Central Catholic.

Happy place

Storm Norton is a key player for the offense this season. Norton
is the only returning starter on the offensive line, Storm Norton is a key player for the offense this season. Norton is the only returning starter on the offensive line,
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Whereas many players use the first week of camp to drop a few pounds and get in better shape, 72-year-old Ron Martin came prepared. Martin, a former coordinator of Whitmer's junior high and freshman teams, unretired this year after 18 years away from the game.

He'd be in excellent shape if he were half his age, and Martin can physically handle these arduous early August days. But his mind is starting to feel heavy.

"I'm impressed with how well they do things," Martin said. "Problem is, I'm on mental overload."

Being an assistant coach at Whitmer is not easy. Palka's 16 staff members arrive to the football building about 6:45 a.m., are scheduled to leave at 3:30 p.m., but often don't until closer to 6. All but five of them teach in the Washington Local school district, and a couple of others teach elsewhere. When the school year ends, the staff begins their second job -- coaching Whitmer football.

"He's demanding and gives us a lot of responsibilities," receivers coach Ken Winters said. "He's very helpful. A lot of guys, you don't feel like you can go to for help. But if he gives you a job, he expects it to be done."

Sixteen assistant coaches is a lot. College programs generally employ anywhere from 10-15 staff members, including short-term graduate assistants and the vaguely defined quality control staff members. Palka even appointed a director of football operations, Dave Heigel, to oversee filming of practice, maintaining the team's Web site, and handling travel accommodations.

"Being in the middle of it is unparalleled to anything I've ever seen," said first-year coach Wondell Hills, who is one of three former head coaches on staff.

Most of the coaches work for little money. Palka makes $8,000 per year, and his offensive and defensive coordinators collect $5,700 -- the full cost of one coaching stipend, of which eight are available. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, Palka tries to give something, even $100-$200, to all of his coaches. This year, three staff members are true volunteers. One of them is Bryce Graven, the new defensive ends coach. Graven teaches at Anthony Wayne, played football at Anthony Wayne, and coached at the school the last nine years. This offseason he decided to venture out from his comfort zone, forfeit a paycheck, and come to Whitmer and coach for free.

"I needed to see something new," Graven said.

Only two coaches have left the program under Palka, one because of a time conflict with work, and another, in Rod Missler, who left a year after his son graduated from the team. Palka's next staff member to go elsewhere could be defensive line coach JoJuan Armour, a Central Catholic graduate who played in the NFL and won two Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year awards while at Miami. Armour, who played for Palka at Central Catholic, hopes to get a college job soon.

With respect to fiery receivers coach Ken Winters, and bombastic offensive line coach Jerry Bell, Armour is the baddest dude on staff. No one else on staff can claim to have been suspended from a Canadian Football League team for being over-aggressive during training camp.

Kubicki, the defensive coordinator, is one of a handful of coaches on staff in their second stint with the program. When Palka got the job in 2006, he first interviewed every teacher in the district who had coached previously. Initially, Kubicki had no interest but agreed to help Palka get caught up to speed on his new job.

"But I really hit it off with Joe," said Kubicki, the head coach of Whitmer's successful track and field program. "We have a lot of similarities."

Toughest job

Whitmer coaches are tough on players but also encouraging. Wondell Hill congratulates a player on a good play. Whitmer coaches are tough on players but also encouraging. Wondell Hill congratulates a player on a good play.
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Bell, the offensive line coach the last 11 years, has the hardest job in camp.

Palka's philosophy is to use his most talented linemen on defense and leave it to Bell "to make miracles" on the other side of the ball. Bell returns 6-foot-8 left tackle Storm Norton, a University of Toledo commit, but no other starters. The line is undersized and overmatched by the defense, but that's no excuse for being soft, and Bell, who perpetuates every stereotype of an offensive line coach -- loud, large, and intimidating -- let's them know just that. So does Palka, who called the line "soft as hell" during his post-practice blowup Wednesday.

But Palka, Bell, and the other assistants don't stay mad for long. The next words spoken to their units are encouraging, the coaches making sure to patch up any damage done to one's confidence. No sense in dwelling on the negatives.

"Too often in this job you can get mired in negativity," Palka said.

At Whitmer, it seems that would be tough to do.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com 419-724-6160.

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