By GUY DOSSI
For The Union Democrat
For Calaveras Redskins seventh-year head coach Jason Weatherby, the 2014 football season will begin in a way he has yet to experience in his coaching career.
When the Skins take the field Friday night in Stockton to face the McNair Eagles, they will do so as outright defending Mother Lode League champions.
If Calaveras expects to repeat as MLL champions, they will have to rely on a few seasoned seniors, and a large group of talented juniors.
Calaveras is replacing 20 graduating members of the 2013 team, and the junior class is stepping up and accepting the challenge.
"The juniors on the team have really come a long way over the summer," Weatherby said. "I don't feel like they are behind because they made such positive strides in camp."
With returning junior Cameron Moore, along with fellow classmates Garrett Heffington, Shane Torre and quarterback Dylan Byrd, the juniors do not have time to get comfortable with varsity life.
It truly is baptism by fire.
"I feel that as a junior I have to accept my role and listen to the seniors, but at the same time, I know that as a quarterback, I need to be a leader on the field and set a good example for the rest of the team," Byrd said.
It would be unfair to put all the pressure on the juniors, as the Skins are bringing back a few, but very important pieces of their 2013 championship season.
Three-year varsity player TJ Crenshaw will be involved heavily in the running game, as he has the speed and agility to make defenders miss, while also possessing the big-play ability to change a game in a flash.
"I know that I am not the only one out there contributing on offense," Crenshaw said. "There are 10 other guys out there who are working as hard as they can. It's a team game and that is the way it's supposed to be. I feel that there is a little bit of pressure on myself to do a good job running the ball, but I enjoy pressure."
Scoring points has never been a problem for Calaveras. Every season, the Skins lose a big chunk of their offense, and every year, they pick up right where they left off.
If ever there is an example of a year-after-year non-stop assembly line of talent, look at the Skins.
For years, Calaveras has been able to control the tempo of a game with their relentless ground-and-pound rushing attack.
Connor Hamilton was a major contributor to the rushing attack last year, and will serve as the Skins' go-to-guy.
With Crenshaw as the fleet-footed shifty, and Hamilton as the crusher, Calaveras owns an excellent one-two punch.
"Connor and TJ are both great offensive weapons for this team," Byrd said. "If we decide to use the sprint game or outside rushing we have a fast runner in TJ. And if we need to pound the ball inside, Connor can handle that."
Sophomore call-up Noah Preuss has been performing well early in practice, and coach Scott Anderson, who is entering his 21st year at Calaveras, sees him contributing offensively.
"I am expecting that sophomore Noah Preuss will have a good year," Anderson said. "He is learning new things day-by-day, and I think that by the time we get into league, he is going to be a factor running the ball along with Hamilton."
"Noah Preuss is one of the hardest working kids on the team," Weatherby said. "He never gets down on himself and he gives everything he has every play. We wouldn't be the team we are without him. He has truly impressed me."
As much as Calaveras loves to rush the ball, a successful passing game is crucial for a rushing attack, and Weatherby will call on Byrd to be the signal-caller opening night.
"He (Byrd) can run our offense really well and we have added some more play-action plays which will help him, too," Weatherby said. "We tend to run the ball more than we pass, so play-action pass should work with so much focus on our running game."
Byrd has also impressed his older teammates.
"So far Dylan has looked great in practice," senior lineman Santino Combs said. "He has been making good passes and is making good decisions. I'm looking forward to having him as our quarterback and blocking for him."
By the way Combs goes about his business on the field, he would enjoy blocking for just about anyone. Combs is a tough, no-nonsense player who is embracing his role as a leader.
"Being a senior and a leader on this team is a lot of responsibility that I didn't have last year," Combs said. "Last year, I looked to the seniors for guidance and now I've got younger guys looking up to me, so that is a different feeling. So I need to lead by example."
Combs will have to teach as well as lead being the only returning starter on the line from the 2013 campaign. His experience has already brushed off to 6-foot-5, 265-pound Heffington, who will also be a force on the offensive line.
"Santino is a great leader for the rest of the linemen," Heffington said. "He has a lot of strength and is brutal out on the field. He pushes us in the weight room and makes each one of us better. He's a great teammate."
Perhaps sticking close to Combs has caught the eye of Anderson. Or perhaps it's the fact that Heffington is one of the biggest players in the league that makes him stick out. Whatever the case may be, Anderson knows he has a blocking machine on his hands.
"Heffington has looked really good in practice so far," Anderson said. "He started out at tackle and then we moved him to guard and now he's settled in at center. I really think he will do a good job. He is a really big guy and hopefully he can handle some of the smaller guys that he faces up front."
"Garrett Heffington is bigger than everyone else out here, and he is a very aggressive player," said Hamilton, who hopes to benefit from Heffington's blocking. "He's already a really good player, and once he gets used to playing at the varsity level, he will be unstoppable."
Heffington, along with Combs, will be joined by Dakota Sims, Stephen Brookshire, and Mason Parham will anchor what is looking to be a very solid line that will only get better with time.
"We have one returning starter from last year (Combs) and he was a part-time starter," Anderson said. "Everybody else is coming up from the JV program. It is still early, and we are still looking at guys, but we are switching players around on the line and have guys learn multiple positions. We are just trying to put them in the right spot so that they will have the best chance to succeed and help us out during the season."
Junior tight end Shane Torre can block like a lineman, but it's his presence in the passing game that will be a challenge for opposing defenses.
"Torre has been catching the ball really well," Weatherby said. "He's learning to run to open areas instead of just running a route. I would really like to get him way more involved in the offense."
Juniors Trevor Ramierz and Marcus Johnson are also key targets for Byrd in the passing game.
If ever there was a question mark about the 2014 Skins team, it is based around the defense.
With so much youth and so little experience on the defensive side of the ball, it is still unclear as to what will show up Friday night.
As there is no one star on the defensive side of the ball, there is one player who is shaping up to look like a future apex predator. Torre has shown his coaches he is willing to do whatever it takes to be on the field Friday night.
"Right now, he is playing at the strong end position, or outside linebacker to the strong side," said defensive coordinator Doug Clark of Torre. "He is a very big, athletic player that should see the field on both sides of the ball."
"Torre is a big guy who is really strong and has a lot of heart," Moore said. "He is a really good football player and will be fun to watch this season."
Hamilton was the leading tackler on last year's team and will be expected to replicate his 2013 performance.
"We will use him back and forth from the free safety position playing back for the pass, and up to the strong safety position for playing up for the run," Clark said.
Hamilton will be joined by senior Eric Cancilla at the other safety position. Kirk Overly, JJ Gonzalez and Ramirez will play along side Crenshaw in the defensive backfield.
Crenshaw flourished last year on defense, but even though the senior is a star and leader on the team, he can see there is still room for team improvement.
"I would have to say that the biggest difference between this year's team and last year's team is the intensity," Crenshaw said. "I think the intensity is not as strong as it should be, but it is still early and I know it will pick up."
The Skins are deep at the linebacker position with Combs, Wade McCann, and last season's sophomore call-up Connor Moore, patrolling the middle of the defense.
Brookshire, Heffington, and Parham will play on the defensive line and will try to not only stop the run, but put pressure on the quarterback.
With one less week of practice because of an official 11-week season, Clark knows that it will take more than just seeing what is produced in a controlled practice environment to know what they have defensively.
"Lots of guys are catching our attention, but not until we see them in the heat of battle against an opposing jersey will we know for sure what we have," Clark said. "To me this will be our toughest challenge. We have a very young team defensively and they just need to have some live action. It's too early to tell."
The Redskins start the road to postseason Friday in the zero week at Division 1 McNair, of Stockton.
Calaveras comes home for a pair of games against Escalon and Modesto Christian before finishing preseason on the road at Union Mine.
The Redskins' path to repeat as MLL champions got a little more challenging this season with the addition of the Sonora Wildcats into the league. Calaveras will host the Cats for the second straight year after opening league play against arch-rival Bret Harte.
The Redskins follow Sonora with a road date at Argonaut and then have a bye before hosting Summerville for homecomoing on Sept. 24.
The Skins host Amador on Nov. 7 to end the regular season.
For Calaveras to be successful, the seniors must take control, the juniors must rise to the occasion and most of all, stay healthy.
Most of all, health will play a factor into the success of the 2014 season.
"Our success this year is going to revolve around if we can stay healthy," Weatherby said. "If we can keep our guys healthy and on the field, I think we will be in good shape and will be able to make a good run."