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Football Season Preview: Douglas hopes balance will propel to success

by Joey Crandall

Balance seems to be the key word for the Douglas football team this year.

The program has experienced a revolution in the passing game over the past decade.

Prior to that, Douglas had traditionally been a power run school.

Since 2001, every school passing record has been broken at least twice, some three times.

But, as head coach Mike Rippee will be the first to point out, the team has far from an air-it-out prolific passing attack. And it doesn’t aim to have one any time in the near future.

“I say it every year, but to have success in high school football, you need to have success running the football,” Rippee said. “If you can’t establish the run, you aren’t going to win, particularly when the playoffs roll around.”

With a returning starting quarterback, a loaded receiving corps and unproven talent at running back, the temptation might be there to air things out.

But Rippee points to the 2008 squad, which had among the best offenses the school has ever seen, particularly through the air.

While rolling up 4,553 yards of total offense during the season, the team managed only 73 and 94 yards on the ground during it’s two regular season losses (Las Vegas and Manogue respectively). In their three total losses (Douglas fell 44-24 to Reed in the playoffs), the Tigers threw the ball 48, 34 and 35 times respectively.

“We don’t want to throw the ball that much,” Rippee said. “Sometimes we got to fancy for our own good.

“You have to be able to line it up and push it at the other team. We want to balance things up a bit more.

“With the running backs we have, we should be able to do that. You look at the strength we have at quarterback and how deep and talented we are at receiver, we’d be fools not to get those guys involved in the gameplan. We like to spread people out.

“We’ll get there. We’re strong on the line, but inexperienced. We should be able to do a lot of different things with the guys we have.”

Defensively, Douglas returns four starters, including three all-league honorees, from a unit that allowed 327.6 yards per game last year.

Douglas switched to a 4-3 scheme from its long-employed 5-3 last season and saw its total-yardage-allowed drop about 30 yards per game while its rush defense knocked about 300 yards total off of 2008.

“Our focus this year is on being a shutdown defense,” Rippee said. “We look at our playoff losses and you can’t give up three touchdowns in playoff games. You can’t break down in the playoffs.

“We haven’t been able to get past that. As coaches, we haven’t been able to get the kids past that. Defense is all about attitude and playing with pride. It’s instinct. Our mission this year is to play big-time, shutdown defense.”

Douglas opens its season Sept. 3 at home against Reed at 7 p.m.

Here is a position-by-position breakdown on the Tigers heading into the year:

QUARTERBACK

For as much as Rippee is seeking offensive balance this year, it’s appropriate that the Tigers come into the season sporting one of their most promising dual-threat quarterbacks since a certain other Rippee was roaming the backfield in the orange and black.

Senior Zack Williams returns after throwing for 1,108 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior while missing two games due to injury.

He also ran for 297 yards and six touchdowns.

“As a junior he had a lot to learn,” Rippee said. “He worked very hard in the offseason, went to some camps and came in bigger and stronger. He has a much better hold on the offense and as a senior, he’s stepping into more of a leadership role. He’ll be instrumental to what we do.”

Williams’ size (he comes in at 6-3, 200 pounds) will also be a plus.

“He’s a big, strong kid,” Rippee said. “He can run over some people. He’s just starting to figure that out. He’s been working out at linebacker too and we think he is good enough to play both ways if we need him to.

“But his ability to run the ball adds an extra dimension to the offense. He’s kind of in that Tim Tebow mold and he’s not afraid of contact. We’re excited to see what he can do.”

Junior Sam Cochran will back Williams up after a solid season at the junior varsity level.

“He’s a competitor and a hard worker, and he knows the offense,” Rippee said. “He’s got a great attitude and we’re confident with him in there. He’s very capable, very much like Timmy Rudnick a couple years ago — smart and committed.”

RUNNING BACK

Senior Ryen Ake (63 carries, 413 yards, 3 TDs in 2009) is the heir apparent to fill Northern 4A Player of the Year Johnny Pollack’s shoes. He’ll be pushed by a healthy stable of running backs, though, starting with senior Matt Metz and sophomore Conner Peterson.

“This is a position where nothing is set in stone heading into the year,” Rippee said. “Ryen is next in line and he’s looking good. But there are a couple guys right there with him.

“We gave Matt a shot on offense after a great year as a safety on defense last year and he has shown some good instincts back there.”

Peterson is younger brother to Jake Peterson (starting on the University of Pennsylvania defensive line this year) and Brock Peterson (Sierra League Offensive Player of the Year in 2007) and son to Clay Peterson, who started at quarterback for Douglas in the ’80s and later played at BYU.

“Conner’s obviously got good bloodlines when it comes to football,” Rippee said. “He’s definitely one of the strongest players on the team and he’s only a sophomore.

“It’ll be a matter of how fast he picks up the speed of the varsity level. There’s a lot to adjust to. But he is one of our best hitters and he’ll be competing for a spot on both sides of the ball. We’re not bringing him up as insurance. We’re bringing him up to compete for a position.”

Rippee said junior Ryan Simons also worked hard in the offseason and should see some carries during the year.

RECEIVERS

Senior Austin Neddenriep (30 catches for a team-leading 444 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009) leads a deep and athletic group at receiver.

“You have to start with him,” Rippee said. “He’s a tremendous athlete, great hands, great instincts, good work habits and very coachable. He just has a great attitude. He’ll see time on both sides of the ball.

“He can make the big catch and take a lick at the end of it. He came up huge in some clutch situations for us last year.”

Teams won’t be able to double up on Neddenriep too much, though, as juniors Nick Maestretti and Connor Hughes will make the leap up for promising varsity careers this season.

“Nick is probably the fastest kind on the team and he has a great set of hands,” Rippee said. “He’s involved in three sports (football, basketball, track) and he’s very good in all three of them.

“Connor is another kid that just worked very hard in the offseason and we’re expecting big things out of him too.”

The trio headlines a corps that includes Nate VonAhsen, Steven Werth, Christian Neilander and Ben Khonkhongtitham, who boasts the best vertical leap on the team at 36 inches.

TIGHT ENDS

Rippee said there will be no bigger key to spreading out opposing defenses that at the tight end position, where he feels he has three capable combo players.

Scott Rudnick (6-4, 175) leads the group, but will share time with Trevor Shaffer (6-3, 200) and Riley Griffith (6-2, 175).

“Scott put the time in the weight room during the offseason and got a lot stronger,” Rippee said. “He’s a big target and he’ll catch the ball. He’s a great blocker and we’re very pleased with his progress. He’ll be a big part of our game plan on both sides of the ball.

“Trevor is another kids with just a tremendous set of hands. He’s a basketball player that does the dirty work inside, and he’ll do the same in football. He’s very strong and gives us the option to do some double tight end sets. When you can use your tight ends effectively, it really opens things up.”

OFFENSIVE LINE

Heading into the summer, Douglas only had two returning starters, but their experience coupled with an infusion of promising newcomers had the coaching staff looking at this unit as one of the overall strengths of the team.

Then senior Patrick Miller (6-2, 240), the returning starter at tackle, tore his ACL at a wrestling camp last month and will miss the season. That forced Spencer Fellows, the teams only other returning starter on the line, to move from guard to tackle.

Still, Rippee said, he believes the line will be a major strength for the team.

“Losing Patrick hurt, no doubt about it,” Rippee said. “But Spencer is a great technician and he’s shown a lot of progress from his junior to his senior year in the weight room.

“Across the board, the guys up front are extremely intelligent and they will be leaders of this team.”

The biggest wildcard in the mix will be transfer Trevor Hemsath, a 6-6, 280-pound tackle who played eight-man ball for Smith Valley last year. His dad, Scott, was a standout for Douglas in multiple sports in the ’80s and played basketball at the University of Pacific.

“You can’t coach someone to be 6-6, 280,” Rippee said with a laugh. “He’s a man-child out there. The transition from eight to 11-man football is difficult, but right now he is our best run blocker.

“He really gets after it. He’s very, very strong. When we do one-on-one matchups, he’s just amazing to watch. We’re hoping for a big season for him.”

At the guards, senior Zack Tierney (5-11, 180) and junior Matt Wylie (6-3, 205) are expected to step into starting roles.

“Zack is one of three guys up front carrying a 4.0 or better in the classroom,” Rippee said. “All we have up front are quiet, smart kids that work hard and get the job done. They’ll hang in there and keep coming at you.

“If we get beat up front, it’s not going to be because these guys didn’t know what to do.”

Senior Ben Reed (6-4, 185) will make the shift over from tight end to start at center for the Tigers.

“He’s got that leverage strength, which is the kind you want to have out there,” Rippee said. “He’s another one of our strongest kids and just another smart kid with a great attitude. I’m very pleased with the starting five we have up there.”

Adding depth to the unit will be junior Pierce Dykes, Zach Falanga, August Greth and Roy Gonzalez.

“You won’t find a better group in terms of effort, attitude and desire,” Rippee said.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE

Falanga (5-10, 210) returns from a junior season during which he garnered first-team all-region honors at defensive tackle.

“He’s going to anchor that line, no question,” Rippee said. “He’s quick, strong, has a great nose for the ball and he’s very aggressive. He’s everything you ask for out of a defensive lineman. He without question one of the best linemen in the league. I’d put him up against anyone.”

With Falanga at defensive tackle/nose guard, Wylie and Hemsath will team up to share duties at the strong tackle spot, giving the Tigers superior size at the position regardless of who is on the field.

Senior August Greth (6-0, 190) is slated to return as the starting defensive end/weakside tackle, but he injured his knee on the first day of practice and his return by the season opener against Reed is questionable.

“We expect him to be back,” Rippee said. “He’s just a kid that got better as the year went along last year. Another 4.0 kid that works very hard.”

In the meantime, Trevor Shaffer is expected to pick up the starting time in Greth’s place.

“Trevor can play just about any position on the defense. He could probably play linebacker or even safety if we needed him to. He’s a big, fast, athletic kid.”

Scott Rudnick will step in at the stud defensive end slot.

“Scotty and Trevor were two of our top guys in the Tiger Run (a series of three 300-yard shuttle runs followed by a 400-meter run around the track),” Rippee said. “You don’t see that from the big guys very often. That tells you something about the athleticism we have on the defensive line.”

Kyle Matthews will figure into the mix up front on defense as well.

LINEBACKERS

Shane Connelly is charged with filling in for Pollack on the defensive side of the ball after a solid junior year at outside linebacker.

“We moved him over to the middle, which is a huge responsibility,” Rippee said. “Johnny was a first-team all-state guy as a linebacker, but Shane was able to learn from him.

“It’s a whole different role for him, going from a complimentary player to basically leading this defense. He’s got a great attitude and we’re hopeful that he can do the job.”

Connelly will see competition from Peterson for the starting spot in the middle.

“As he gets more comfortable at the varsity level, he’ll see more time out there and keep pushing Shane,” Rippee said.

Riley Griffith and Justin Tenney are expected to start at the outside linebacker spots.

“Riley is our biggest hitter and he has only gotten stronger since last year,” Rippee said. “Justin has great instincts and is very physical. We don’t have, say, Manogue’s size at linebacker, but we have great technique and conditioning. There is good quickness there. We won’t overpower you but we can hopefully make things happen out there.”

Rippee said Jackson Ketron, Cory Dillon and Williams will also be seeing time at linebacker.

“Cory is one of the hardest workers on the team,” Rippee said. “He’s impressed me so far.

“We have some good depth. We’re not going to line up at 6-2, 210, but these kids can play.”

DEFENSIVE BACKS

With Metz and Neddenriep, this unit has the most returning experience out of any unit on the field, but Rippee said the athleticism and talent is so deep at the position, Neddenriep — a first-team all-region honoree last year — may see time primarily on offense.

“We’re loaded in the defensive backfield,” Rippee said. “We’ve got some of the best athletes we’ve ever had back there.”

Metz will return at strong safety after an all-league season last year.

“He’s just gotten better back there and he’ll be the leader of the group,” Rippee said.

Nate VonAhsen (6-2, 160) will likely start at free safety,

“He’s got great speed and instincts for the position,” Rippee said. “We feel really comfortable with the safeties, being able to move them up in run support. They are both physical kids that will help us out there.”

Hughes will get a starting nod at cornerback along with senior Dillon Spates (5-7, 140).

“Dillon is one of the best stories we have,” Rippee said. “He’s obviously kind of an undersized guy, but he’s an outstanding wrestler and he’s built himself up to be in a position to win that spot.

“He finds a way to get things done and his strength is in run support. He’s a great tackler and that’s basically how he won the position.

“Connor is very good technically and we have a lot of confidence in his ability to get the job done.”

Neddenriep will be a primary backup, as will Maestretti. Rippee said he also expects Tanner Egan to see time along with Khongkhatitham, who, according to Rippee, defends the face route better than anyone he can recall.

SPECIAL TEAMS

VonAhsen and Maestretti are in the running for the placekicking duties, although VonAhsen holds the edge there and Neddenriep will handle the punting duties while being pushed by Steven Werth and Matt Wylie.

They’ll face the prospect of replacing Nikolai Vasquez, who nailed a 53-yard field goal and had a 60-plus-yard punt in one game last year.

“Nikolai was a tremendous weapon and a hard guy to replace, but these guys are getting better all the time.”