MINDEN - Douglas head football coach Mike Rippee said it with just a hint of pride in his voice.
"The offensive line looks like it will be our strength this year and really it should be," he said, smiling a bit while reclining back in his chair.
It might not make a lot of sense on the outset, heading into the season with an unproven load of ball carriers and new faces at nearly every single position on defense, but this is the type of team that Rippee lives for.
It's no secret that Tiger football teams have come to define their success based on physicality and desire over the years, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in the trenches.
Over the past two seasons, the Douglas offensive line has sprung two 1,600-yard-plus running backs, staking each to seperate single-season school rushing records. The Tigers do lose all-Sierra League Lineman of the Year Tyson Estes and hard-nosed all-Sierra-League center Datin Whatcott, but return starters or seasoned-veterans at every other spot on the line.
"There are a lot of seniors there this season," Rippee said. "Both guards and both tackles. We've seen some real good things from them so far."
Leading the group will be returning starters Trevor Freitas (tackle, 6-0, 215 pounds) and Henry O'Hair (guard). Ryan Guzman steps into a starting guard position and Matt Castro (6-0, 240) will take over where Estes left off at tackle. Lake Terrell, a 6-1, 200-pounder who started for the junior varsity squad last season, completes the core of line and junior Brent Koontz will shift over to tight end after seeing some time at tackle last year.
"Trevor started every game for us last year," Rippee said. "Henry saw a lot of action, Ryan got in the game quite a bit. We've got a lot of experience there.
Things don't change much under center for the Tigers as senior Roman Davis will claim the starting quarterback spot for the second year in a row.
"People are going to look to him this year," Rippee said. "He has a year under his belt now, he's a senior and we've got a lot of young guys playing key roles for us that will look to see how he handles himself and the team.
"We expect a lot out of Roman and he expects a lot out of himself."
Davis will have plenty of targets heading into the season, highlighted primarily by preseason All-Northern Region pick D.J. Brady.
"D.J. is our top guy at receiver, there is no doubt about it," Rippee said. "He didn't have a ton of catches last year, but the ones he had were spectacular.
"He is probably our best athlete and he will catch the football no matter what."
Juniors Chris Balcom and Steven Passalacqua are expected to see a lot of playing time at receiver, as is junior Julius Bailey.
"Chris has never played football before, but he has really established himself," Rippee said. "His attitude, his desire, his willingness to learn and his coachability have all really helped him take some big steps over the summer.
"Steve was the top JV receiver last year and he's beginning to come into his own. Julius will also see some time in certain sets. He's got a good set of hands."
Bailey, however, will also be part of a virtual log jam at running back.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Tigers will begin the season with a junior feature halfback. But, just who that back is still remains to be seen.
"I have a committee back there right now," Rippee said. "Maybe eventually one of them will step up and get away from the others, but right now there isn't a whole lot separating them."
Not that that is a bad thing. The halfback position could be a virtual three-headed monster for the Tigers, featuring Tyler Tinstman, Reese Kizer and Bailey, in no particular order. All are talented, tough runners that have shown promise in preseason workouts.
"The last junior to really see extensive action at halfback was Evan Bill in 2001 and that didn't happen until the end of the season," Rippee said. "We want to give all three guys a chance to establish themselves and get into the rhythm of the game, but that kind of depth will keep us fresh, so we'll see how it works out."
The Tigers also have a trio of tough runners coming in at fullback, led by senior Brian Palmer. Juniors Ryan Pruitt and Phil Mannelly will also be vying for time at the position.
"Offensively, we are ahead of where we've been compared to this point in the season the last few years," Rippee said. "We've seen some real good things."
Defense, however, remains a question mark in Rippee's mind.
"There's no doubt about it, I truly feel you have to be a good defensive team to go anywhere," Rippee said. "Defense is a lot of attitude and desire. You have to be disciplined and you have to be a real competitor to play defense. At this point in time, we have a way to go to get there."
The Tigers return only three starters and one other player who saw extensive time on the defensive side of the ball, and most of those will be stationed at new positions.
Koontz, a preseason All-Northern Region selection at defensive line, will be the Tigers' strong-side linebacker heading into the year. Brady shifts from cornerback to safety, where his brother Bryan played last year, Pruitt will start at the weak-side linebacker and Cory Fry returns to a starting spot at defensive tackle.
James Barnard, who made several big plays in a reserve role last season, will start at nose guard, and his brother, Bryan Barnard, will start at the other defensive tackle.
"James isn't as big as the nose guards we've had the last few years, but he has that same motor," Rippee said. "He keeps it going at all times and has a tremendous desire to succeed. Bryan has done some good things in the preseason and we expect a lot out of Cory this year."
Guzman and Mannelly will start at the defensive ends and O'Hair steps into the middle linebacker role.
"Pound for pound, Henry is probably one of the strongest guys on the team," Rippee said. "We count on him being very physical and running that defense."
Davis and Cole Hamzik will slide into the two corner spots, making seven defensive starters who will see significant playing time on both sides of the ball this year.
Brady will also handle the punting duties for the Tigers this season and Kizer is expected to take on the place kicking job.
"Special teams will be extremely important just as they always are," Rippee said. "People tend to forget about how important the kicking game is. Reese has gotten better every week and D.J. looks like he will handle the job well. We've worked real, real hard."
Douglas gets little time to adjust, starting off the season against three of the High Desert League's top teams. The Tigers open the year tonight at home against defending Northern 4A champ Reed High at 7 p.m. They follow with a home game against Spanish Springs on Sept. 2 and a trip to perennial power McQueen on Sept. 9.
"We're going to see what kind of football team this is going to be right off the bat," Rippee said. "We'll be tested by fire right away.
"It's been a long time since I had this question mark in my mind with just exactly what we are going to do and where we are going to be. I know these kids have worked extremely hard and are in great shape. I really just want to see us play hard and physical. If we do that, I think we will see some good things this year."