Ground game will be focus after throwing ball over 30 times a game last year
Spanish Springs has methodically scaled the High Desert League standings in its first three seasons under the direction of Eric Borja.
The Cougars finished fifth, one spot out of the playoffs, in 2014. They took fourth in 2015. And last year, a goal-line stand in the final minute at McQueen eventually secured a third-place finish. If Spanish Springs is going to continue its ascent, it will have to get past 4A North powers Reed and/or Reno.
“We don’t go into a season talking about being fourth. We talk about winning a regional, league championship. So, you strive for that and we’re looking to move up, no question,” Borja said. “We have to get to those teams (Reed and Reno) in the fourth quarter. We feel if we can be in the game in the fourth quarter, then we have a chance. In the last couple years, it’s been over before halftime. You can’t win games that way. There’s no way you can came back from down 40 points.”
For the most part, it will be a new cast of players, specifically at skill positions, who will be asked to help chase down the Raiders and Huskies. The most notable departure from last year’s team is all-league quarterback Korbin Marcum. Marcum averaged nearly 234 passing yards a game with 19 touchdowns opposed to just five interceptions. He will be replaced by senior Frankie Tiernan, who got his first start in last year’s quarterfinal loss at Douglas. Marcum watched the game from the sideline with a concussion.
“It (playoff start) absolutely helped,” Tiernan said. “I definitely got a lot of good reps, got to get the game speed (down). I love it. It’s going to be a lot of fun this year.”
The Cougars threw the ball more than 30 times a game in 2016, a number Borja wants to shrink. He aspires to live at the coveted 50/50 run-to-pass ratio and let senior running back Gabby Ordaz chip away at opposing defenses. Ordaz led last year’s team with 157 carries (Marcum was second with 45) for 642 yards and six touchdowns. Colby Preston will the bash to Ordaz’s flash out of the backfield.
The two will run behind an offensive line that is relatively small compared to other groups around the 4A North. An absence of girth is nothing new to Borja in his fourth season at Spanish Springs.
“We try to get them to eat as many buffets as possible, but they don’t seem to want to,” he said. “We’re in the same boat. Ryan (Fauls) is probably our biggest lineman at 260, 265. We have other guys who are tall and look good in pads, we just don’t have that bulk.”
When Tiernan isn’t handing off to Ordaz or Preston, he will be throwing to a receiving corps that graduated five of the six players who finished with at least 100 yards receiving in 2016. That list includes first-team all-region selection Austin Cadenhead. He caught 42 passes for 747 yards and nine touchdowns. Colton Allen led the team in receptions (65) for 568 yards and four scores.
They will be replaced by the likes of 6-4 sophomore Jordan Dudick, juniors Colton Romero, Colby Melton, and Hunter Flores, and senior Donte Smith. Smith missed last season due a benign tumor in his neck.
“We graduate a lot of guys. Those were playmakers. But we have a good younger group coming up now,” Borja said. “So, we’re going to be all new, but these guys are good.”
The linebackers are the unquestioned unit of strength on the defensive side. Senior Killian Hurley, Preston, sophomore Jackson La Duke and senior Ossian Liber will anchor the second level of Spanish Springs’ defense. Chase Martin will be a staying power on the front as the Cougars plan to use a “by-committee approach.” The secondary will also feature of slew of new names.
“They’re talented, they just need some game experience,” Borja said. “Everyone presents something different (offensively) … One week, you’re playing Carson and double wing, wing-t. Next week, you’re playing Damonte and spread offense. So, you have to be able to have all sort of game plans in just to compete.”
The new names on the Cougars’ roster will immediately be tested in Saturday’s season opener at Idaho State against Rocky Mountain (Meridian, Idaho). The Grizzlies are 20-4 in the last two seasons, won a 5A state title in 2015, and start this season ranked No. 2 in the state of Idaho.
“We’re feeling great. We’re ready to work,” Tiernan said. “We’re ready to give everybody our best shot.”
Overview: The Cougars aren’t particularly large up front and they’re not going to get any bigger before Saturday’s opener. That’s familiar. The difference is this year, they will have to run behind the group. Spanish Springs lived and died last fall on Marcum’s shoulder and earned a spot in a winnable playoff game at Douglas as the HDL No. 3 seed. The realistic shot of winning that game ended one week prior, when Marcum left the regular-season finale at Reed with a concussion. The development of the run game would allow Tiernan to ease into the starting role, and it would keep a defense that allowed 30 points a game last year on the sideline. When a team starts piling up wins, it’s easy to point out the players who keep finding the endzone, but if the Cougars are to finish in the top half of the High Desert League for a second straight season, it will be because the offensive line paved the way.
Prediction: 4-6, 2-3