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Avonworth adopts 'pro' style

| Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Former Steeler Chris Hoke works with Avonworth linemen on the first day of training camp Monday, August 13, 2012 in Ohio Twp. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Former Steeler Chris Hoke talks with the Avonworth football team on the first day of training camp Monday, August 13, 2012 in Ohio Twp. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Avonworth's Cooper Kusbit improved his technique, footwork and learned some nifty tricks from his new defensive line coach. But he and his teammates also want dance lessons from Chris Hoke.

“I hope, maybe in the near future,” the senior nose tackle said with a laugh.

The Antelopes likely have the most accomplished line coaches in the WPIAL now that Hoke has joined Jeff Hartings as an assistant on Duke Johncour's staff. Without doubt, the former Steelers are certainly the most recognizable.

“We're real excited to have them,” Johncour said.

The Antelopes were familiar with Hoke and Hartings, earning them instant respect and credibility. The players also knew about the popular jigs Hoke danced during his years with the Steelers and were hoping to see them before camp ended.

“He hasn't done the hokey pokey yet,” Johncour said during the first week of camp. “That may come later.”

Hartings and Hoke live in the Avonworth district, which includes the northern communities of Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township. This will be Hartings' second season with the team and Hoke's first. But the football program isn't new to former professionals: Ray Zellars, who played four seasons with the New Orleans Saints, spent three seasons on the Avonworth staff and is a volunteer assistant.

Having them around can provide a unique experience, Johncour said.

“They bring a lot of intensity and a lot of focus,” he said. “That's the one thing I can say about those guys: They have a drive to better themselves and better the players they're working with. To play at those levels, it takes an intensity that's unmatched.”

A number of former Steelers have worked as WPIAL assistants in recent years. Among them was retired punter Josh Miller, who remains on the Fox Chapel staff of Eric Ravotti, a former Steelers linebacker. Also, retired linebacker Jason Gildon was an assistant at Peters Township last year.

Hartings and Hoke each spent 11 seasons in the NFL. Hartings, 39, retired after the 2006 season. Hoke, 36, retired earlier this year. Now they're reunited on the practice field, a place they shared for six seasons. With Hartings playing center and Hoke at nose tackle for the Steelers, the two battled frequently.

“Every single play,” Hartings said with a smile. “It was intense.”

Now they're sharing that passion. Hartings coaches every practice, and Hoke helps two or three times a week. They're often teaching the most basic techniques and fundamentals — step here, move there — that are well below their NFL expertise.

“At times it could be frustrating,” Hartings said, “but I've learned that it's a great opportunity for me to get back to knowing the game. And I remember the time other coaches gave to teach me football.”

He called Russ Grimm his most influential coach but also named others in the NFL, at Penn State and in high school that he appreciated. His current players have a growing appreciation for him and Hoke.

“They know how to handle every situation we face because they have the experience,” senior lineman Tyler Knepper said. “They've seen all of it.”

“Both of them really focus a lot more on the subtle techniques compared with the coaches we've had before,” senior lineman Sam Werley said. “It's always been the same intensity, but that detail makes all the difference.”

“You get excitement whenever you do something good,” Kusbit said.

Johncour said he has seen a difference with his linemen. As a former college quarterback, Johncour teaches most aspects of the game. But he leaves the line play to the experts.

“They're teaching things that you could go to clinics and try to pick up,” Johncour said, “but they've been doing it at the highest level for 11 years. They've perfected their craft.

“You can read a manual and it tells you how to put a transmission in a truck. But that's not as good as a mechanic who has been doing transmission changes for 11 years.

“They can really explain the little nuances.”

Hartings said he tries to teach more than football. Ministry has become his second career, so he strives to be both coach and mentor.

“We need men in America,” Hartings said, “and that's what I'm preaching to them today: respect and responsibility.”

Hoke attended a few Avonworth games during his playing days, so the Antelopes were familiar with him. He and Johncour are friends, and both have sons in sixth grade. During summer baseball, Johncour asked Hoke to join the staff.

There was a buzz when each first arrived at camp, but that has lessened as the season approaches.

“They're just coaches now,” Johncour said. “The mystique and the awe are kind of gone after a little while. But the respect for their expertise is always there.”

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at charlan@tribweb.com or 412-380-5666.

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