Steve Turner has deep ties to North Medford’s football program but, with all due respect, he couldn’t care less about last year’s three-win campaign by the Black Tornado.
“I told the kids I don’t want to hear anything about how they felt about their teammates or anything that happened last year,” said the first-year North Medford head coach. “I don’t really care who started last year or any of that. We started over fresh, it’s a clean slate for everyone.”
That spirit has been well-received by North Medford players and created an open competition that Turner hopes will bode well by the time the Black Tornado is finally able to take the field for 2018.
It’s been a slow and steady process for Turner and company, with several new staff members coming into the fold and a host of holdovers trying to implement a new system that has served Turner well since his days as North Medford’s defensive coordinator from 1988-97.
In 18 years since as a head coach, Turner has amassed a 106-77 record and guided Mountain View to the Class 5A title in 2011 and Cascade to the 4A crown in 2015.
“It’s that process where you’ve got to teach the coaches before the coaches can teach the players,” said Turner, “but the coaches have been really, really receptive. We’re getting along great and it’s been fun in that respect, it’s been really fun.”
“Our playbook is really, really small right now,” he added. “Blocking and tackling is what we’re really concentrating on now. In the first game we play you’ll see a semblance of what we do. We’re not a smashmouth team and we’re not a spread team; I consider us a pro-style offense. Not that we’re as good as the New England Patriots, but New England does a lot of stuff and we will, too. We’re not going to play 11 guys, we’ll group our kids.”
One player likely to stand out from the crowd is senior standout Eli Spence, who has served as a 6-foot-5, 217-pound utility knife the past two years. Spence played tight end, receiver and tailback last year but will call the backfield home this time around to boost his team’s Southwest Conference hopes.
“We require a little bit different running style out of our tailbacks, it’s more of a downhill deal,” said Turner. “He’s so bloody fast he has a tendency to want to get outside, but he’s a strong, big, fast kid so to me he’s the ideal tailback.”
Last year, Spence was the SWC’s second-leading receiver with 633 yards and five touchdowns on 33 receptions. He was moved to the backfield at the end of the regular season and averaged 10.2 yards per carry, finishing with 307 yards and two scores on 30 carries.
Spence was also a leading figure on the defense at linebacker and defensive end, and played special teams to complete his versatile performance. He also served as one of the team’s key emotional leaders, be it on the field or on the sidelines.
For his efforts, Spence was a second-team all-SWC selection on both sides of the ball.
“He’s a fiery guy and he is a competitor,” said Turner, “but he’s not the only guy we can hand the ball off to.”
In Turner’s ground-based system, several ball carriers will be needed and North Medford is fortunate to have several quality options behind Spence in senior Tommy Hamilton, who missed last season due to injury, and junior tailbacks Josh Baptiste and Zach Ryall. In the fullback role will be seniors Thomas Bates and Dallin England and junior Travis Ebert.
The Black Tornado will feature an I-formation, but Turner said it’s not improbable to see three running backs in the backfield to control the ball and wear down opponents.
“What I would love to do is have a 10- or 12-play drive and score a touchdown,” said Turner. “I’m not that spread offensive philosophy where we need to score on every play. If we do hit a 70-yard run, I’m not going to argue with it, but if you can impose your will on people, the other offense is standing on the sideline. I’m a selfish guy, I like having the ball.”
Furthering that process will be a deep corps of offensive linemen, led by all-SWC senior Tony Bench (5-10, 239). The Black Tornado has been working in about a dozen offensive linemen through practice, mixing and matching to create experience in all spots and with all teammates. Turner said he’ll likely rotate in “seven to 10 guys” to keep everyone fresh.
The biggest open competition likely has been at quarterback, where Turner has been impressed at times by the quartet of seniors Conner Gradwell and Jacob Peterson, junior Brennan Stults and sophomore Colby Neron. Gradwell was the varsity backup in 2017, while Peterson and Stults were part of a trio that split time at the JV level. Neron got all the snaps on the freshman squad.
“They’re all four competing and you’ve got to coin-flip it on who’s doing well on one day or who’s doing well another day,” said Turner.
Gradwell suffered an MCL sprain in a scrimmage and wasn’t expected to return to action until the days leading up to the season opener. That will leave the starting duties for Stults in the interim, with Neron getting full reps at the JV level. Peterson will serve as the backup early on and, depending on results, the position could remain fluid until SWC play starts in Week 5.
Seniors Anthony Taylor and Jacob Sousa and juniors Devyn Grafton, Owen Grafton, Nic Samudio and Jett Carpenter will spearhead an inexperienced receiver corps.
The addition of wrestling turnouts Andres Ramirez and Cole Zoller should give the defense a boost, with North’s stable of linebackers leading the charge thanks to the experience of Spence, Bates, Carpenter and Owen Grafton from a year ago, along with Hamilton and junior Dane Stewart.
“I think we can match up with the spread people,” said Turner, “and if people want to pound the ball at us, bring it on. That’s how we practice every day so it’s not like you’re going to run over us.”
Steve Turner (first year; 18th overall, 106-77).
Turner guided Class 5A Mountain View to its only state championship in 2011 and 4A Cascade to its second title in 2015, and helped secure a state title (1993) as defensive coordinator at North Medford from 1988-97.
ASSISTANTS: Josh Dykes (defensive line/strength coordinator), Jacob Palaniuk (defensive coordinator), Jim Figoni (running backs), Curtis Stout (receivers), Jim Bosworth (secondary), Dan Frederickson (secondary), Johnny Vaigafa (offensive line), Alvin Thornton (running backs), Tyler Baird (quarterbacks/JV head coach), Greg Bryant (freshman), Phillip Lopez (freshman), Dave Delgado (defensive line).
2017 LEAGUE RECORD: 3-3 (fourth, SWC).
2017 OVERALL RECORD: 3-7.
PREDICTED FINISH THIS YEAR: Fourth.
21Fortuna (Calif.) 34
39Shasta (Calif.) 69
27South Eugene 8
6South Medford 55
30Roseburg 27, OT
14Grants Pass 34
OFFENSE (3): Running back Eli Spence (6-5, 217, sr.), center Tony Bench (5-9, 205, sr.), place-kicker Tucker Houck (5-11, 160, sr.).
DEFENSE (5): Linebacker Thomas Bates (6-0, 195, sr.), defensive back Anthony Taylor (5-7, 151, sr.), linebacker Owen Grafton (5-10, 165, jr.), end Eli Spence, tackle Tony Bench.
Lineman Kika Stone (5-9, 285, sr.), lineman Jullian Stone (5-7, 224, sr.), running back/linebacker Dallin England (5-9, 174, sr.), lineman Juan Velazquez (5-9, 187, sr.), running back/linebacker Tommy Hamilton (5-9, 172, sr.), receiver/linebacker Jett Carpenter (6-3, 191, jr.), receiver/linebacker Devyn Grafton (5-11, 168, jr.), running back/defensive back Josh Baptiste (5-7, 154, jr.), quarterback/defensive back Brennan Stults (6-2, 173, jr.), quarterback/defensive back Conner Gradwell (5-11, 192, sr.), quarterback/defensive back Jacob Peterson (6-1, 172, sr.), quarterback/defensive back Colby Neron (6-0, 161, so.), receiver/defensive back Jacob Sousa (5-11, 158, sr.), running back/defensive back Zach Ryall (5-8, 144, jr.), running back/linebacker Travis Ebert (5-8, 173, jr.), receiver/defensive back Nic Samudio (5-9, 142, jr.), lineman Matt Smith (6-1, 189, jr.), lineman Jacob Bermudez (5-7, 189, jr.), lineman/linebacker Dane Stewart (5-9, 206, jr.), lineman Parker Landon (6-2, 280, jr.), lineman Joe Biddle (6-1, 175, jr.), lineman Levi Griffin (6-2, 310, so.), lineman Romello Tialavea (6-5, 285, sr.), lineman Joe Baures (6-1, 196, jr.), receiver/defensive back Cole Zoller (5-9, 151, jr.).
Aug. 31at McNary, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7JEFFERSON, 7 p.m.
Sept. 14BEND, 7 p.m.
Sept. 21at Mt. View, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28SHELDON, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5at Grants Pass, 7 p.m.
Oct. 12at Roseburg, 7 p.m.
Oct. 19ALOHA, 7 p.m.
Oct. 26at South Medford, 7 p.m.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry