Line ‘em up
Tigers offensive and defensive lines are, well, enormous
They don’t always attract interviews, crack highlight reels or become the talk of a football town.
Yet coaches say success starts in the trenches.
Grand Junction High School should provide a pretty good answer this season. The Tigers’ lines are enormous and experienced. They lost a couple of the state’s top skill players, Denver Post Gold Helmet award winner Sean Rubalcaba and running back Jerreon Dennis.
But what is likely one of the state’s biggest offensive and defensive lines returns:
■ Austin Berk, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound tight end and defensive end, verbally committed to play at Colorado State University.
■ James Diamanti, a 6-4, 285-pound defensive tackle and guard, verbally committed to the University of Wyoming.
■ Offensive and defensive tackle Kyler Rose, an all-conference selection who is 6-4 and 280 pounds, reportedly is entertaining offers from Yale, Princeton and Colorado School of Mines.
■ Theron Verna, is a 6-2, 240-pound returning starter at defensive end will also play fullback.
■ Deshaun Harris, 6-2, 280 pounds, is a returning starter at guard and defensive tackle, plus a fourth-place finisher in Class 5A in shot put last season.
“As far as conference-wise we’ll be bigger than anybody, and we’re probably one of the 10 biggest teams in the state,” Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens said. “We’ll continue to use that as a strength. We’ve asked the guys to take on a little more up front, kind of expand the things we do up front.”
Comparisons to last season’s breakout team that was ranked No. 1 in the Denver Post Class 5A poll for much of the season have leapt from the lips of many in the area who follow high school football. The Tigers, 11-1, lost in the state quarterfinals to Lakewood. This season could serve to erase memories of a few errors in the game that ended the Tigers’ state-title hopes.
But slow the tape. This will be a different Tigers team. Although Junction will have big-play capability, gone is the threat of one man cutting back and in seconds crossing the goal line (see: Rubalcaba and Dennis).
Look for the Tigers to try to grind teams to powder. Junior Austin Lewis will be the Tigers’ featured running back. He has good speed with an 11.7-second 100-yard dash, and at 5-10, 195 pounds, will be a shifty bruiser. Last season he averaged 7.5 yards on 30 carries.
He will try to absorb the sting of the Tigers losing Dennis and his 2,354 yards rushing and 31 touchdowns.
And who will replace Rubalcaba and his 1,229 yards passing, 1,220 yards rushing and 27 overall touchdowns?
The competition to start at quarterback pits a pair of sophomores: Joe Wiman (6-3, 180) and Tyler Heinsma (6-2, 195).
“For both of them it’s a matter of them getting comfortable in our offense as far as their running game and not trying to be Sean Rubalcaba and kind of making it their own,” Owens said. “Both of them are smart kids and grew up in our offense.”
Owens said both practiced individual drills with Rubalcaba.
“They’ve been around (Rubalcaba) long enough to know what he’s about,” Owens said. “We don’t expect them to go 70 yards like Sean did. Just get first downs.”
Hence, the grind.
And the grinders. It’s a role Diamanti enjoys. If the argument is chemistry and offensive lines make a team, the Tigers should surpass expectations of critics who say they will not be as successful without their graduated talent.
“I’m pretty sure we’re more of a team than we were last year,” Diamanti said. “Other than us, nobody in the state feels we have a chance. Personally, we have a way better chance of making it to state than we did last year.”
Have there been preseason signs to back up this claim? Yes.
At the Boise State football camp in June, the Tigers defeated Cosumnes Oaks 7-0 in a 30-minute running clock, full-contact game. Cosumnes, from Elk Grove, Calif., is a returning state qualifier.
“They were very athletic and fast,” Owens said. “I don’t think we’ll see a Colorado team as athletic as they were. It was probably one of the proudest moments I’ve had in my four years, just how much we grew in that one week.”
Grand Junction’s defense proved stout and could become its trademark feature this season in a 4-2 defense under new defensive coordinator Bill Godsil.
And the Tigers possible offensive success could boil down to one near certainty: There will be holes. The skill players just need time to find them and blast through.
“(The linemen) have all this talk about them, and what it all comes down to is they’re just kids,” said Ed Johnson, a defensive line coach. “They are young men trying to get better every day. Then we’ve got guys who are unproven, backs and receivers, and they have to step up, and they are almost coming out of nowhere. No one knows them.”