Liotta set to bring balance to McKeesport offense
Jim Ward always wants his McKeesport Area football team to have a certain identity on offense.
"Running the football, being physical, is going to be what we do, our philosophy, our staple," Ward said. "At the same time, we probably only averaged between eight and nine passes a game last year and that has to become a lot greater because, obviously, the run helps the pass and the pass helps the run."
To achieve greater offensive balance, Ward, in his second season at McKeesport, turned to Shawn Liotta.
Liotta will be McKeesport's offensive coordinator, replacing B.J. Pugh, whose offense helped guide the Tigers to an 8-2 finish in 2010 that included the Foothills Conference championship.
Liotta, had previously coached Arena football and at Duquesne University before serving as offensive coordinator in 2009 under Ward at Yough. The opportunity to reunite with Ward was too good to pass up.
"My expectation as a coach at McKeesport is to win a state championship, win a WPIAL championship," Liotta said. "I know that's coach Ward's vision with this program and I know that's certainly the goals of the kids that are on this team.
"I'm just really grateful for this opportunity. I know he's got a great vision for where he wants to take this program to. I'm just happy to be a part of it."
Liotta played football at Robert Morris after graduating from Springdale High School in 1998. He returned to Springdale to serve as an assistant for four seasons.
Liotta served as running backs coach at Duquesne from 2002-04 before heading to District 4 to become the head coach at Line Mountain for one year. He also coached four years at West Shamokin, and professionally in the American Indoor Football Association, where he was head coach of the Pittsburgh RiverRats in 2007.
"I have a background in a lot of systems," Liotta said. "I played for (Springdale coach) Chuck Wagner, who when I first started coaching with him, was a two tight end, full-house backfield, old-school kind of guy. We kind of got him to spread things out, do some different things when I was there. I've always kind of been a spread guy."
But spreading out McKeesport's offense won't be Liotta only focus.
"There's a lot you can do," Liotta said. "I think the key for us is to make sure you put the pieces in the right places and kind of cater what we do to the talent we have."
Liotta has installed packages that include power-running formations, pro-style sets and the triple-option, which former Tigers coach George Smith used to win WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA championships in 1994 and 2005.
He is hoping those offensive options, along with the spread formation, will make McKeesport one of the WPIAL's most explosive teams.
"Coach Ward is a big believer in a couple things," Liotta said. "Being able to run the football. Being able to run power, run (isolation), get downhill on people. We'll do it from a variety of formations."
That's where Liotta's strengths are best used.
"We want to be able to throw the football down the field," he said. "I think that's the biggest change that you'll see. I think you'll see us take some more shots in the passing game. I think our passing game will be a little bit more diversified. We're going to be able to attack different things in the defense a little better."
"We'll do some different things with the screen game. We'll do some exotic formations. Some weird stuff like that to kind of keep people on their toes."
Liotta will have plenty of options.
McKeesport returns rising junior quarterback Eddie Stockett, who last season passed for more than 800 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will have a strong target to which throw in receiver Youri Whindleton.
The graduation of Sam Gooden will give the Tigers' backfield a new look. Gooden gained 1,319 yards and scored 19 touchdowns last season.
McKeesport's group of potential replacements includes rising senior fullback Delmingo Batch, as well as running backs Donte Patterson, T.J. Neal, Hodari Christian, Delray Singleton and Lawrence Wallace.
"Shawn has a vast array of knowledge on the offensive side of the ball," Ward said. "We got a chance to work together before, so I knew what I was getting, and it's something I'm pretty excited about."