ASHLAND — Four weeks ago, the Ashland Grizzlies shocked just about everyone, including themselves, by trouncing the Japan all-stars in Pacific Rim Bowl XII.
After the 26-0 smackdown, most of the attention focused on Ashland sophomore quarterback Danial White. No surprise there — the sophomore completed 19 of 23 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns in his varsity debut. But that spectacular performance overshadowed another, minimizing what head coach Charlie Hall believes could be Ashland's most valuable asset: a lean, mean defense equipped with both speed and power.
"Really, when I look at our football team, I see that being a real strength," Hall said of the defense, which held Japan to 147 yards of total offense, including 44 rushing. "Being able to shut out Japan speaks to our ability to play with teams that have speed. And when I look at the size of their line, I think we matched up pretty well with their girth and their size.
"We're only as good as our next game, but how we handled Japan's speed and their front was pretty good."
It's also pretty rare. Japan torched Ashland in the previous five PRB's (all Japan wins), averaging 29.8 points per game. But on July 29 at Phillips Field, the Grizzlies showed the kind of play-making ability that tends to raise expectations. There's just one problem: depth.
More than half of Ashland's defensive starters will also be required to play on the offensive side of the ball. That list includes sophomore middle linebacker, and the team's leading tackler last season, Mason Montgomery (the starting center on offense), senior cornerback Taylor Humphrey (starting receiver), junior safety Jon Volz (starting running back) and virtually the entire defensive line.
Since many of the backups have little if any varsity experience, Hall knows that Ashland could be just a couple key injuries away from disaster.
"So that requires those guys to be in great shape," he said. "If one of those guys gets nicked then we're really dropping off."
As is, Ashland has stalwarts all over the place on defense. Montgomery (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) is a year older after starting as a freshman, Humphrey (5-9, 165) and Sam Geisslinger (5-8, 150) give Ashland two potential shut-down corners and junior linebacker Austin Chandler (5-9, 165) may be the fastest athlete at AHS.
Hall expects big things out of the D-line as well, especially ends Franklin Lime (6-4, 200) and Alec Ralston (6-2, 210).
"If we can get some people in some passing situations, they're going to be hard to block," Hall said.
Offensively, the Grizzlies are short on size — their starting offensive linemen weigh an average of 202 pounds — but have plenty of athleticism. Humphrey in the slot and Lime at tight end both have breakaway speed, and the slashing Volz averaged 7 yards per carry against Japan.
Stirring the drink will be White (5-11, 160), a lefty whose quick decision making and pinpoint accuracy left Japan's defense in tatters. A Pop Warner state champion, White is used to the spotlight and handled it well while seizing the starting job against the Japan all-stars, but bigger tests remain. To that end, the Japan game may have provided White with a blueprint for success.
"I think we got a good look at what the potential of the offense can be right now," Hall said. "When you look at (White's) throws, they were real high-percentage throws and we weren't doing a lot of five-step drops, we weren't throwing the ball vertically down the field too much. Again, it's more of an evolution."
The quick throws out of Ashland's no-huddle spread — yes, the Grizzlies also employ prep football's latest super fad — play to White's strengths, but also should take some of the pressure off Ashland's green offensive line. Only one starter, senior guard Andres Gutierrez (5-9, 225), returns up front, but there's potential. Montgomery is the center, Ralston and senior Conor Morrison (6-2, 190) are the tackles and senior Logan Hartrick (6-1, 190) returns from an injury plagued year to take the other guard spot.
All will play defense, too.
"The question is," says Hall, "do we have the depth, and do they have the endurance to go both ways for a long time?"
Ralston thinks he knows the answer.
"I think we're going to move the ball up and down the field," he said.
This season marks Ashland's first as an official member of the eight-team Midwestern League. The Grizzlies played a Midwestern schedule last year but were not eligible for the league title.
Ashland's first MWL game is a big one — Sept. 9, at home against perennial powerhouse Marist, the defending league champion and the 2010 state runner-up.
The Grizzlies can't wait.
"We're going to strap it up and hit them hard," Ralston said.
Added Hall: "If we can get a packed house here with Marist, and make some noise, and get them feeling a little bit like, 'Wow, this is pretty amazing,' our kids will rally. And you never know."
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-776-4469, or email email@example.com