Grand Junction hoping skill results in stellar season
Size didn’t matter last year for the Grand Junction High School football team.
This year, the Tigers hope skill kills.
Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens admits he used to be enamored with size when it came to his football players, especially the linemen. Last year, he said, changed his perspective. His team was loaded with massive linemen, ranking among the largest offensive and defensive lines in the state, and the Tigers had two NCAA Division I college recruits.
But when all was said and done, Grand Junction finished 2-2 in the Class 4A/5A Southwestern Conference, 6-4 overall and bowed out of the Class 5A state playoffs with a first-round loss. Each result factored into what Owens readily acknowledged was a disappointing season for a team that sought a third consecutive conference title and a deep run in the playoffs.
This year, there’s still some size on the line, led by senior Quinton Walton, who is 6-3 and has “slimmed down” to 275 pounds. He will start on both lines.
“He’s going to be our go-to guy up front,” Owens said.
Walton will be joined by the likes of 270-pound junior Austin Gray and 220-plus-pound seniors Michael Mc-Knight and Matt Costigan.
But a glance at Grand Junction’s list of returning starters provides a smack-upside-the-head revelation: The Tigers bring back almost all of their skill players.
■ Senior quarterback Tyler Heinsma, who rushed for 789 yards and 15 touchdowns last year and passed for 968 yards and four scores.
■ Running back Austin Lewis with 1,118 yards and seven TDs under his belt from his junior season.
■ Senior running back Dion Martinez, who gained 390 yards on the ground and scored six times.
■ Senior wide receiver Kaleb Johnson, who led the Tigers with 35 catches for 404 yards.
■ Junior wide receiver Jack Parsons, who tied for second on the team with 10 catches, good for 184 yards.
■ And fullback Theron Verna, who didn’t put up big numbers as a junior, but Owens says that will be a different story this season.
It’s a stark contrast to a year ago, when most of the linemen were experienced, but none of the skill players were.
Owens relishes what the wealth of experience in the skill positions could mean this season, especially after what he witnessed in the months leading up to this season.
“I think a lot of our skill guys this summer got comfortable in our offense,” Owens said.
An experienced quarterback is a great start, and Owens said Heinsma has made impressive strides.
“He’s committed to football as much as any kid we’ve ever had,” said Owens, who is in his sixth season at the helm of the Tigers.
Heinsma said the game is slowing down for him.
“The experience last year helps me know what the speed’s going to be,” he said. “This year I feel like I’m way further ahead in our passing game.”
Owens may have a blessing and a curse to contend with, though. Oh, what to do with all of these weapons?
He’ll try to spread the wealth, but he wants to make sure he gets one player in particular much more involved: Verna.
Owens believes Verna is one of the best high school football players in Colorado, period, because of his blend of size (6-3, 240) and speed.
“You don’t find guys who are 6-2, 6-3, 230, 240, who run as well as he does,” Owens said. “He can run with anybody. He can get out and run with defensive backs.”
Hence, Verna will line up in multiple positions on offense: fullback, tailback, H-back and wide receiver.
“He’s a guy that we have to get touches to,” Owens said.
Not to be forgotten is the defense, where Owens also has experience returning because many of the skill players on offense also line up on defense.
Verna at end and outside linebacker, along with free safety John Wiman, will be the leaders of the Tigers’ D, and Owens said Grand Junction will cater to the strengths of inside linebackers Trevor Abbott and Robbie Gonzalez.
Martinez, Owens added, “is going to be a shutdown corner.”
Owens also likes the leadership he has seen from his seniors since last season ended, another reason he expects the sum of the parts to equal a conference contender this fall.
He added his seniors want to redeem themselves, and they put in the work to do it. Heinsma says as much.
“Last year, we wanted to do a lot more than it turned out being,” Heinsma said. “We want to come out this year and have a different story.”