So, how does Paso Robles High replace Bailey Gaither?
“I don’t know yet,” coach Rich Schimke said.
Gaither was the best player in San Luis Obispo County last season, and led a Bearcats team to a 13-2 record and its first CIF-Southern Section division championship since 2000. The senior wide receiver, who is now at San Jose State, did it all. He had 1,480 yards receiving, 798 return yards, 372 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns.
But the Bearcats still have enough talent — including two key offensive returners from that championship team — to garner a No. 2 preseason ranking in the Northern Division by MaxPreps.
The team ranked ahead of league rival Arroyo Grande, a team that Gaither helped beat twice with late game heroics in 2014. The Bearcats will try to move on from Gaither and look to a senior quarterback and a not-so-secret weapon at running back when it begins its title defense Friday.
Can Davis do it again?
The offseason didn’t go as planned for senior quarterback Justin Davis. When Davis was playing baseball this summer, he injured ligaments in his throwing hand and missed all of the summer passing league games. He was allowed to return to practice just a few weeks ago.
“I know I have to work twice as hard to get back to where they are right now, but I feel like I’m coming back strong and I’m ready to go right now,” Davis said, adding that his grip feels stronger than ever after rehab.
Along with rehab, Davis spent his summer reliving last season’s glory.
“It was amazing. I can’t stop dreaming about it,” Davis said grinning. “Best thing we can do now is try to live up to where we were last year.”
The absence of Gaither will affect Davis the most. More than 43 percent of Davis’ completed passes and 57 percent of his 2,600 passing yards last season went to Gaither. Davis will be also be without tight end Josh Oliver. The 6-foot-4 senior collected 453 receiving yards in 2014, and is Gaither’s teammate at San Jose State this year.
At times, such as a four-interception outing against Arroyo Grande, Davis struggled with accuracy last season despite leading the PAC 5 in passing yards. He had 11 interceptions, but finished the season with a 64 percent completion percentage.
“I was used to Bailey Gaither, but people are stepping up,” Davis said.
Seniors Tristin Durfee and Davis’ backup, Steven Schouten, have been getting looks at the one and two wide receiver spots, but Schimke said there are about five players fighting for playing time.
The Bearcats are also still trying to figure out who will be at tight end.
“Somebody is going to get those yards,” Schimke said of the offense.
Luckily for the Bearcats, a hungry running back is poised to eat them up.
It’s hard to believe considering his 6-foot, 220-pound frame, but Christian Erickson snuck up on the PAC 5 last season.
“Last year, he was an unknown in the beginning of the season,” Schimke said.
“I had an idea of what I thought he was going to be able to accomplish because the big question last year was who’s gonna be the running back?”
Now there’s no question.
Erickson missed six games last year, including the playoffs, because of injury. While healthy, he had 1,472 total yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging more than 7 yards per carry.
Erickson, who has packed on a few extra pounds in the offseason, will have to run this season behind an inexperienced offensive that is returning just one starter.
“What was really nice about last year was we knew how we were going to block it and how we would play the game and so we didn’t have to communicate as much as I do this year,” said senior center Blake Irysh, the only returning offensive line starter. “I have to really make sure everyone knows what they’re doing.”
But sometimes it doesn’t matter.
“Christian is a fun guy to block for because even if you’re not blocking well, he’ll make another block for himself,” Irysh said. “That always helps.” Pressure on the defense
With some offensive unknowns, pressure may fall on the Bearcats’ defense. Schimke said the core of the defense will be safety Mark Armstrong, and two second-team All-County players in defensive end Evan Espinoza and linebacker Matt Keller.
“There’s a lot of pressure since last year; we were CIF champions,” said Keller, who has also been getting reps at tight end. “But we’re just going to go out and play every game as hard as we can and see what happens.”
It’s a defense that lost two first-team All-County players in Oliver and Michael Horne.
“The family, the togetherness we had, that was just insane,” Keller said of last year’s run. “All these athletes together and we were just making plays and it was just a lot of fun.”
But when it comes to this season, Keller already has a league game on his mind. “I’m always looking forward to playing Atascadero,” he said.
“They’re a big-time rival so I’m looking forward to that game for sure.”
The Bearcats open the season Friday at home against Clovis High, ranked 50th in California by MaxPreps.