GRANTS PASS — Now in his 10th season as head coach — and with consistently high turnout numbers across all levels of his football program — John Musser’s hope is that Grants Pass is in position to simply reload as it gears up for the 2017 campaign.
The Cavemen may not have the elite-level recruits that have come into the Sheldon program or the experience of a South Medford, but the number of returning starters and players who have seen game action has Musser willing to put his group up against any as the Southwest Conference season looms.
“I think the talent level in those two places is off the charts this year, but I think we’re right there in terms of consistency and depth of players,” said Musser. “We don’t have big names like those two teams, but I’ll take our depth and our guys and we’ll see what happens.”
With eight returning starters on offense — including four linemen — and three on defense, the Cavemen have enough of a building block to make them dangerous on any given night.
Seven members of that group earned all-SWC recognition one year ago, led by first-team receiver Tayler Phillips and second-teamers Will Bartley (offensive tackle) and Richard England (linebacker).
“It’s been a high-energy group and there’s a lot of them that played a lot of football last year, whether or not they were starters,” said Musser. “It’s a group of kids that understands what it takes to compete at this level, so there’s been a fairly small learning curve as far as that goes.”
Offensively, a lot will revolve around whether the group of returning linemen in tackles Bartley and Ethan Jacuinde, center Gerardo Rodriguez and guard Stephen Young can gel into a more solid group up front.
“All four of those kids started every game and took most of the snaps every game,” said Musser, “but they weren’t great every time. We took our lumps at times and it was a pretty inconsistent group, so that’s what we need to improve on. It’s a group that has worked tremendously hard so I’m excited to see how it all comes together.”
That group should help pave the way for what could be a breakout season for junior quarterback Blain Hobbs, who completed 66 percent of his passes in the regular season last year for nearly 1,000 yards.
In his first season at the helm, maybe the most important factor is his touchdown-to-interception ratio last year was nearly 3-to-1 at 14 TDs and five interceptions.
The 5-foot-8 signal caller has put on about 10 pounds from a year ago, although at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, he will never be the most intimidating QB, and his command of the offense is obvious.
“There’s a physical maturation to where he’s gotten a heck of a lot stronger,” said Musser. “His one-year maturation is like, I would say, double that of a typical high school kid just with as much work as he’s put in with film and studying things.”
Hobbs will have plenty of options with a deep receiving corps led by Phillips, who caught 28 passes for 348 yards and five TDs last year, and junior Korbin Lopez, who was a starter in 2016 but was lost in Week 4 after breaking his collarbone.
The backfield is inexperienced with seniors Vince Washington and Victor Ruiz handling duties, but both bring a physical presence with the ability to catch the ball and move the chains.
Defensively, the strength of the squad exists in a linebacker corps that returns starters England, Washington and Adam Joham.
The defensive line will be entirely new but Musser has high hopes for transfer Austin Byrd, who comes to GP by way of West Valley High in Cottonwood, California, and Corbin Anderson, who would have been a starter last year but suffered a broken arm at the end of daily doubles.
Junior Warren Stark was the JV team’s top lineman last year and his continued development will be key to the front line push.
The secondary has the least game experience, with Lopez and Jaren Emptage stepping in as first-year starters at cornerback while Phillips has impressed at free safety.
Of the 37 programs that have played at the 6A level since its inception in 2006, Grants Pass ranks 16th overall (third-highest in the SWC) with a 68-51 record.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry