Healthy Jensen keying run game for Delta
The No. 1 question facing the Delta Panthers this year was who would replace No. 1.
Head coach Ben Johnson wasn’t worried.
For the past four years, he had a security blanket wearing jersey No. 1 in Jonny Ponce, who was one of the best running backs in the state all through high school, and Johnson never hesitated handing him the football.
Even in Johnson’s diverse offense, the running game makes it go.
Johnson knew he had a replacement for Ponce waiting in the wings. Damon Jensen was ready but there were still some questions regarding the senior to start the season. Injury questions.
The answers have come loud and clear after three games for the Panthers. Jensen has rushed for 731 yards — a total that leads Colorado in all classifications. He’s averaged 11.7 yards a carry and had a 316-yard game in a 50-13 win over Moffat County in Week 2.
“Sometimes you just don’t know after an injury. But he’s so dialed in,” Johnson said.
Jensen is a speed back packed with confidence. And he had no doubt that this would be his year.
“Coming into the season I wasn’t nervous at all, I was ready to go,” he said. “I’m shooting for the stars.”
Jensen is all smiles when he talks about how much fun it is being back on the field.
His goal is to rush for more than 2,000 yards this season, which would be an impressive feat.
He’s off to a fabulous start but it’s a lofty goal considering Ponce, in his final two seasons with the Panthers, rushed for 1,921 and 1,773, respectively.
In the previous two seasons, Jensen had shown flashes every time he touched the ball.
He had 150-plus yards in a game subbing for an injured Ponce as a sophomore. Then in the final regular-season game against Palisade, Jensen busted loose on a 70-yard touchdown run. The electrifying dash got the Panthers into overtime where they sealed the victory.
Then he broke his foot and was out of the playoffs.
His junior season was full of promise but he suffered a broken collarbone in the first game of the season. Junior season of football done before it even got going.
Now, he’s happy, healthy and confident.
“Both my injuries were fluke accidents, it was just me giving 100 percent and I got injured,” he said. “But that’s the way I like to play, just going 100 miles an hour all the time. That’s the only way to do great things.
“I had surgery and came back super healthy. No lingering effects from the injury. I probably could have come back at the end of last season but we didn’t want to rush it.”
Jensen says he has a different running style than Ponce.
“Speed is my strength and right now I’m feeling really fast,” he said. “My style is that I’m going to run as hard as possible all the time. Jonny was a real patient runner. He saw his holes and took his opportunities. Me, I’m going all out all the time and if there’s a hole there, I’m going to make the most out of it.”
Johnson said Jensen and Ponce are very different backs.
“(Jensen) is a different type of runner. He’s got great speed and he’s a little more shifty. Jonny was a lot more powerful and ran between the tackles a lot more,” Johnson said.
Injuries are an unfortunate part of football and players are tormented when the thrill of playing turns into the agony of watching.
“It’s the hardest thing to be on the sidelines to watch your teammates play when you want to be out there giving all your effort because you know they’re giving all their effort on the field,” Jensen said. “I just had to focus on the long term and getting back healthy.”
Jensen said the first game this season was as memorable as any because he was back on the field and back with his teammates.
“It was really cool to get into the atmosphere again and embrace all my teammates again and just be part of the game again,” he said.
He then went out and rushed for 209 yards.
With three returners on the offensive line and bruising 240-pound fullback Tristan Brown back, Johnson knew the Panthers would again be able to run the ball.
So did Jensen.
“With all the guys we had back and some of our young guys, I knew I’d have holes to run through,” he said.
Delta (2-1) is now in Class 2A and after a season-opening loss to Durango, they’ve rolled to a pair of blowout wins.
Next up for the Panthers is Palisade (2-1) tonight at 7 p.m. at Stocker Stadium. The teams were 3A rivals for years and for the past four years, the Panthers and Bulldogs battled for the Western Slope Conference title.
Palisade is once again a powerhouse in the 3A ranks and will come into tonight’s game after an impressive 40-14 win over Fruita Monument.
Both teams are currently ranked in the Top 10 in their respective classifications.
Even if the game is just a nonconference meeting, it’s still a rivalry.
For Jensen, he’s happy and healthy, and he has the smile and the numbers to show for it.