Not only did the leading rusher in prep football along the Central Coast miss all of last season, but he also wasn’t even an offensive starter at the beginning of this one.
Undeterred, though, Jacob Flores is helping to lead a resurgence at San Luis Obispo High.
Flores, a senior running back, has 644 yards and six touchdowns on 71 carries so far this season for the Tigers (4-1, 1-0 PAC 7), whose 25-21 win over Paso Robles last week was the program’s first victory over the Bearcats in five years. His early production has come after he sat out all of his junior year with a back injury. To open this year, he was penciled in as a starting outside linebacker, but was projected as a backup on offense.
“I came in with a defensive mindset this year,” said Flores, who remains a force on that side of the ball, as he’s the Tigers’ second-leading tackler (with 40), behind only star junior middle linebacker Jack Ferguson.
But when starting running back Jake Lacy, a senior captain and third-year varsity player, went down with an ankle injury during the Tigers’ season-opening 45-40 loss at Kingsburg, Flores was called upon. And running behind a quick offensive line of Ryan Schultz, Cole Foubert, Jack Milstead (Domenic Fountain has also seen time at center), Ferguson and Ted Martin, he hasn’t disappointed, averaging 9.1 yards per carry out of the triple-option backfield.
“It’s not just us,” Milstead said. “Jacob’s an absolute beast. He’s 5-foot-6 breaking tackles on 6-foot-2 players. It’s amazing.”
On the PAC 7 leaderboard, Flores’ yardage total is 227 yards ahead of the league’s next-leading rusher, teammate Garrett Giovannelli, a junior dual-threat quarterback. In the Los Padres League, only Lompoc junior superstar Lavon Coleman has comparable figures, with 622 yards and eight TDs on 120 carries.
His hard work is paying off
After playing at the lower levels as a freshman and sophomore, Flores suffered his injury about a week into camp in 2010.
The Tigers went on to reap the benefits of the system implemented by head coach David Kelley’s staff when he was hired at the start of the previous year, culminating in one of the most memorable games in the area, a stunning 38-17 win over then-defending PAC 7 champion Righetti, which at the time was on a 10-game league winning streak.
“It was the hardest thing,” Flores said. “I was watching, every day.”
Flores trained with a vengeance to come back, though. Listed at 160 pounds, he’s currently among the top five in the Tigers’ weight-room standings, Kelley said, not just by body ratio, but overall.
“He’s the hardest-working kid I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach,” Kelley said. “He was just getting after it. It’s just a testament to what he did in the offseason with his strength and conditioning. He was so upset about his lack of being able to contribute to the program (as a junior) that he made sure. He put his body in such a shape that it was not going to be a factor.
“He’s like an oak tree,” Kelley said. “He’s just strong to the core.”
And now that he’s healthy again, Flores certainly isn’t taking his time for granted.
“I’m just really thankful to be out here playing football,” Flores said. “I didn’t know if that was the end or not. It’s great to be back out here.”
Tigers looking to get back to the playoffs
Perhaps even more encouraging for the Tigers’ potential, their offense has been producing at this rate with a significant amount of turnovers.
San Luis Obispo has fumbled 15 times this year, losing eight of them. In the Paso Robles win, they committed five turnovers, including four lost fumbles.
“We’ve just got to clean everything up,” Flores said.
If they could clean up those mistakes, “We’d be at the next level,” Foubert said. “We’d be one of the more solid teams.” Or, as Milstead put it, “We would no longer be just fighting for that fourth-quarter win.”
“Focus,” Kelley said of what it’ll take to be less mistake-prone. “That’s focus and it’s details.
“There might be other teams out there that might stand in our way,” Kelley said. “I’m sure there are. But right now up until this point, the only team that’s slowed us down offensively has been ourselves.”
Indeed, coming into tonight’s 7 p.m. league game at Holt Field against visiting Pioneer Valley, the Tigers are off to their best record since 2006.
“We’re excited about it,” Kelley said. “It proves our program is headed in the right direction. However, we’re 1-0 in league. And as I just told them, I’m not very good at math, but it takes four wins to get into the playoffs out of our league.”
The defense is doing its part to make that happen.
Led by Ferguson, who has a team-best three sacks to go with his 61 tackles, as well as ball-hawking senior free safety Trevor MacLeod (two interceptions, 26 tackles), the Tigers are holding their past three opponents to an average of 14.3 points and 258.3 yards per game.
“We’re getting the respect back at our school,” Ferguson said. “We’re trying to keep our heads straight and not get too full of ourselves, though.”
Fountain added, “Just like coach Kelley said, it’s a small step for where we want to be.”