After a year of subbing at QB, Willett returns to running back for Tigers

Photo illustration by Gretel Daugherty—Grand Junction’s Sean Rubalcaba will have options in the backfield this season. Andy Willett, left, returns to running back after playing quarterback for the injured Rubalcaba last season. Jerreon Davis, right, will spell Willett and get some carries as well.

Andy Willett was supposed to provide the lightning to Jayke Brock’s thunder last year.

Instead, the Grand Junction High School football team had little flash or bang after quarterback Sean Rubalcaba missed much of the season with a broken left leg. The Tigers finished 3-7.

“It’s too bad we didn’t get to do that last year,” Willett said. “This year, I think we’ll be able to have a similar look and be about as solid as we could’ve been (last year).”

Coach Robbie Owens hoped to split the carries between Brock and Willett last year; instead, Brock averaged close to 40 carries a game.

Brock has graduated, but Willett, who filled in for Rubalcaba at quarterback, returns as the Tigers’ tailback, ready to light up defenses.

“Last year I had to do it from quarterback, which is a lot different,” Willett said. “I’m glad to be a running back and I’m excited to actually be doing what I really want to do most.”

Owens is excited to see what Willett can do.

“In my opinion, he’s over a 1,000-yard rusher and one of the top safeties in the league,” Owens said. “Last year, he didn’t get to carry the ball and he didn’t get to play any defense.

“He’s definitely shifty, quicker. He’s going to try to bounce the ball more outside and every time he touches the ball, he could go the distance.”

If nothing else than to keep the defense honest, Owens plans to give some carries to Jerreon Dennis to provide the thunder, an approach similar to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Carolina Panthers’ “Smash and Dash” duo.

Owens said he’s looking at 25 to 30 carries a game for Willett and 10 or more for Dennis.

More NFL teams are going with a similar approach and it could filter down to the high school level, Owens said.

“Because you don’t want to see kids injured, you’re going to see more and more guys split carries,” Owens said.

“One guy will still probably get the majority of them, but you’re going to see that second guy get more carries than you probably have in the past just because you want to try to save guys (to be fresh for the playoffs).”

A year of playing quarterback should help Willett understand defenses and make better decisions as a running back.

“I think I have a much better overall understanding of the offense and how it works,” Willett said. “I know what Sean’s going to be thinking on the reads.

“Now that I have a little bit of insight from the quarterback, I can read the defense to see where they might be blitzing.”

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Highlands Ranch vs. Grand Junction

Thursday, 7 p.m., Stocker Stadium

Radio: 95.1-FM (KKNN)

Notes: The Falcons (0-0) have nine returning starters on each side of the ball. Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens wanted to play different nonconference teams than last year, but decided to play Highlands Ranch again.

“They are a team I know our kids know we can compete against. Our kids felt like it was a game we let go and it’s a tough test for us,” Owens said.

Highlands Ranch running back Joe Hansley, a first-team All-Southern Conference pick, is back after rushing for 840 yards last season under former Rifle coach Darrel Gorham.

Last season, Grand Junction held a 14-0 lead in the third quarter over the Falcons before allowing a big fourth quarter and losing 35-21.

“I wasn’t planning on playing anyone we’ve played in the past few years because our schedule hasn’t been kind,” Owens said. “But Highlands Ranch was a team we played well against for three quarters, so I thought we could use it as motivation.”

The Tigers have watched last year’s game several times to help prepare.

“It reminds them how they felt after the game,” Owens said. “When we are watching game film from last year it eats at them a little bit.”

Highlands Ranch will face Grand Junction quarterback Sean Rubalcaba for the first time. Rubalcaba missed most of last season with a broken leg.

Defensively, the Tigers need to go after Falcons quarterback Steve Donatell with a pass rush provided by Casey Walker and Cody Cottrell.

Central at Palisade

Friday, 7 p.m., Stocker Stadium

Radio: 1340-AM (KTMM), 95.1-FM (KKNN)

Notes: As far as playoff points go, this game doesn’t help either team, but the thought of these two Grand Valley schools playing each other is a fun way to open the season. It’s a big jump for Class 3A Palisade to play Class 5A Central.

“It’s not great for us as far as playoff points because even if we win it’s against a smaller school and we won’t get a lot of points for that,” Central coach Vern McGee said. “But we’re excited. We don’t know what we have yet, and we’ll find out Friday night.”

Palisade coach John Arledge knows the game is an uphill battle for the Bulldogs.

Arledge said the Bulldogs are still heading into the game ready to compete and win.

“We play to win,” Arledge said. “We could have to play Mullen on Friday, and we’d try to beat Mullen.

“But overall we want to get better, stay healthy, and see where our limits are.”

Watch for Palisade to control the clock with quarterback Luke McLean and running backs Isaac Cordova and JT Townsend.

Central has good speed defensively, led by linebackers Devon Wolff, Dylan Johnson and defensive backs Taylor Sanchez and Alec Rupe.

Cherokee Trail at Fruita monument

Saturday, 3 p.m., Stocker Stadium

Fruita Monument is the only District 51 school with a game under its belt, losing 26-14 last week to Broomfield.

“I really liked the kids’ effort,” Fruita Monument coach Shawn Marsh said. “We were able to execute what we wanted to only two weeks into it.”

One area in which the Wildcats did struggle was tackling. The Wildcats allowed touchdown runs of 63 and 23 yards.

Fruita Monument has worked this week to shore up the run defense in order to face another stout running attack from the Cougars, who have a veteran offensive line as well as running back Bobby Toliver.

The Cougars also have a solid defense, with defensive back Everett Bible, safety Blake Brown and defensive tackle Ryan Campbell.

“They are very athletic defensively,” Marsh said. “But we had a lot of stuff open up (last week offensively) but our timing was just a little bit off, so we are focused on getting the timing down.”

OTHER games to watch

Grand Valley at Rifle, Friday, 7 p.m.: Damon Wells makes his debut as head coach at Rifle for the second time as Rifle and Grand Valley meet for the first time.

Moffat County at Aspen, Friday, 7 p.m.: Skiers running back Nick Ufkes is the real deal.

Paonia at Cedaredge, Friday, 7 p.m.: New Bruins coach Brandon Milholland takes on a Paonia team led by strong-armed quarterback Casey Gillenwater.



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