Sunrise Mountain hasn’t fielded a football squad like this in more than a decade, in terms of raw talent.
Most of it is in the younger classes, particularly a group of sophomores that powered an undefeated and mostly unchallenged freshman team in 2010. A handful of them saw varsity action toward the end of their freshman year, including the Mustangs’ first playoff game since 2005.
“We have a lot of speed and size, more so than last year,” Coach Jim Carter said.
The question is, will this less experienced group be able to continue the strides made by last year’s senior-dominated team? Sunrise Mountain graduated its top two rushers, its three leading wide receivers and three best tacklers.
Carter said the 15 seniors on the team should provide enough of a veteran presence at key positions like quarterback, offensive line, linebacker and safety. That should allow the Mustangs to keep much of this group together at the JV level while the top 10 or so sophomores play key roles on the varsity.
“We’ve taken the kids that fit best in our scheme and seven or eight are on the varsity,” Carter said. “In our scrimmage, they played very well.”
A veteran will lead them, but who that is could depend on the situation. For the second straight year, seniors Josh Ackerman-Blake and Max Shepherd could both see plenty of time at quarterback.
They bring diverse skills to the Mustangs’ spread offense. Ackerman-Blake is the pocket passer, having completed 61 percent of his throws for 1,012 yards and nine touchdowns. Shepherd is a shifty dual threat that passed for 438 yards and ran for 387 last year.
“One’s quick and the other one’s powerful.” center Scott Peterson said. “It’s nice for us.”
One week before the season, Carter said Shepherd looked like the starter but that could change. Ackerman-Blake may come in for obvious passing situations. And both players figure to show up in some formations, throwing another curveball at the defense.
“Both quarterbacks are great leaders. They’re supportive of each other,” Carter said. “I wish one of them was the junior, but obviously that’s not the case.”
The skill positions will be manned by whichever young players step up. Candidates include sophomore speedster Elijah Castro, who returned kicks late last season and can play tailback or wide receiver.
Senior Ray Flores and sophomore Hayden Pate are among the Mustangs’ best linebackers, but should see carries as well.
Junior Elroy Masters is the top returning receiver and shows potential, Carter said, as does senior Christian Miller.
Peterson paces the offensive line, and is one of the few linemen to concentrate on one side of the ball. The sophomore and junior classes could change that this year as junior Drew Johnson and a host of sophomores figure in the mix along both lines.
Senior Devin Koivisto is the prime two-way lineman, as a rush end and offensive tackle. Sophomore defensive lineman Dylan Pensinger has looked good in the offseason.
Linebacker looks like the deepest and most experienced position on the team. Flores and fellow senior captain Dominic Noble will spend the bulk of their time here, while Pate and junior Colton Demers push for playing time.
“We have a lot of younger kids (on defense). We only have one starting returner on defense,” Noble said. “But with the changes here I think we can do a lot with the younger kids.”
Junior John Drago is the full-timer coming back. He picked off two passes in 2010, and will lead the secondary while playing wide receiver.
The rest of the defensive backfield is fairly young. While it’s a common theme with this squad, the pups have an advantage over the 2010 seniors — they’ve had more than a year to absorb this second-year coaching staff’s schemes.
“When you don’t have to learn, you can play faster, and I’ve definitely seen that from everyone on the team,” Ackerman-Blake said.
If things click early, the Mustangs have the potential to reach their goal, back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in school history. Sunrise Mountain’s opener against always-solid Greenway serves as a litmus test.
Pass that and the challenge gets bigger, and more personal in late September.
Liberty visits Sept. 23, and for the first time these neighborhood rivals are in the same division. A road trip to Peoria follows.
Both games provide a shot at redemption after near misses last year. Sunrise Mountain’s comeback bid fell one play short in the 2010 opener. Meanwhile, Peoria scored 14 fourth-quarter points to hold off the Mustangs 27-17.
If those, or other, games are close again, Sunrise Mountain should have a major advantage in senior kicker Ryan Hawkins. He made 15 of 23 field goal attempts in 2010, including an overtime game winner against Kellis and a 50-yarder.
“I think he’s the best kicker in the state,” Carter said.