For the first time in a while, underclassmen aren’t going to be a common sight on the Arroyo Grande High football roster.
And that’s the way Eagles coach Tom Goossen planned it.
“We have some kids who’ve been around the (varsity) program now for three or four years,” Goossen said. “They’re used to the terminology and calls.
“We don’t have a sophomore up on the varsity at this time,” he said in the first few days of training camp. “It’s a pretty good feeling, actually, since we’ve been using a lot of freshmen and sophomores.”
Indeed, a year ago the Eagles featured eight sophomores, and in 2008, they had five sophomores and two freshmen fulfilling key roles.
“We’ve been very young,” said junior quarterback and safety Seth Jacobs, who started as a freshman. “So now, I think our youth is pretty much gone. We’ve grown as a team together, and we should all have good chemistry out there.
“Being young and going to varsity, it was a tough decision,” Jacobs added of the past two years. “But what matters is the future, to keep getting better and to try to reach your full potential.”
At the start of last season, Arroyo Grande’s weight-lifting shirts carried the phrase “Bring It Back,” a reference to the program’s rich history that had fallen on three straight losing seasons. On cue, the Eagles (7-4, 3-2) started 7-1, but lost their final three games, including a regular-season finale against Righetti, 25-21, that would have earned them a share of the PAC 7 title.
“Last year, it was tough just knowing we had it in our hands,” senior linebacker Aaron Ley said. “We’ve got a shot at it again.”
While the Eagles graduated four starting offensive linemen, they should again be able to rely on a productive running game, led by Christian Crichton, a 5-foot-8, 200-pound third-year starter who ran for 781 yards and eight touchdowns on 109 carries en route to all-PAC 7 second-team honors a year ago.
“Our goal was to bring back the winning ways to A.G.,” Crichton said of 2009. “We’ve got to build upon it and do the little things to be a step ahead of how we did last year.”
One of the primary questions as the Eagles opened practice was who would replace starting quarterback Matt McAustin, who graduated after passing for 1,380 yards. In his place, Arroyo Grande was eyeing a competition between Jacobs, senior Kyle Kleinsmith and junior Brent Vanderveen.
The 6-2, 200-pound Jacobs got the most experience of the trio in 2009. In a backup capacity, he was 6-of-12 passing for 66 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 104 yards on 20 carries.
“We all bring something different to the table,” Jacobs said. “It’s just a matter of what’s best for the team (in a given situation).”
The passing game should be lifted by tight end Kelly Shepard and receiver L.T. Johnson, both seniors. Shepard was an all-PAC 7 first-team choice as a junior. Johnson, at 6-4, 190 pounds, claimed both the 100- and 200-meter dash titles at the Elks San Luis Obispo County track championships in March, at 11.49 and 22.57 seconds, respectively.
“We just have to work harder to get to that next step (of winning a league title),” Johnson said.
Jacobs and kicker Garrett Owens, who also was on the varsity squad as a freshman, each emerged as highly publicized college prospects during the summer. Jacobs, who over the past two years made 87 tackles and intercepted three passes, was called by recruiting service Scout.com “one of the top prospects in Golden State’s 2012 class.”
Owens, meanwhile, is ranked by national kicking guru Chris Sailer as the No. 4 kicking prospect in the class of 2012, a “definite (Division I) kicker” who’ll “challenge to be the very best in his class.”
Owens, whose range reportedly extends beyond 45 yards, made 3 of 4 field-goal tries as a sophomore, with a long of 42. He also saw time at receiver and kick returner, compiling 590 all-purpose yards.
On defense, the Eagles will also look for leadership from seniors Garrett Coleman (cornerback) and Colton Smith (line). Coleman had 43 tackles and an interception as a junior, earning all-league second-team accolades, while Smith made 30 stops.
The secondary will have to adjust to life without John Alexander, who intercepted a team-leading three passes a year ago and is now playing at Cornell.
Arroyo Grande opens its season at 7:30 on Friday night at Lompoc and starts PAC 7 play Oct. 1 hosting Atascadero.