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It will be among the top storylines of the football season if Elgin realizes its goal of making the playoffs after a winless 2013 season.
Second-year coach Kyle Rohde said his players would have to stay healthy, improve weekly and get some breaks to go their way, but he doesn't rule a postseason push out of the realm of possibility.
"Our team goal is to be playoff eligible, which is pretty lofty from 0-9, but that's our goal," Rohde said. "If we can't meet it, we've got to win 3 or 4 games. I don't foresee that being out of the question. I think we're going to surprise some people. We'll have to stay on top of things and do things correctly (off the field), but a lot more pieces are there now."
The Maroons begin the season with a varsity roster of 35, up from 28 last August. Rohde hopes to grow the varsity roster by five players per season, but says, for now, this squad is enjoying the benefits of the modest uptick in participation. Practices are more competitive and the number of athletes who can make game-changing plays has doubled. The coaching staff actually has enough high-caliber athletes at the skill positions to substitute in waves, thereby keeping players fresher later into games.
"We've probably got five or six guys who can take it to the house at any given time. They have quite a bit of speed," Rohde said. "If our linemen can just stay on their assignments and keep their feet moving, there's a lot of speed in the backfield. We have four or five backups that all can score, too."
Among Elgin's top athletes in the double-wing spread offense are three-year starter Jordan Smith (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) at receiver and returning senior wingback Johnny Higgins. Smith made 25 catches for 255 yards and 4 touchdowns last season and ran for 114 yards and a score on 39 carries. Higgins made 25 catches for 278 yards and a score.
Another huge target is newcomer Elijah Bonds, a 6-6, 235-pound senior who did not play last year. He stood out during seven-on-seven competitions this summer. Bonds will play both ways, also using his 7-foot wingspan at defensive end.
Elgin's top receiver a year ago was senior Dontrell Gaddy (28 rec., 277 yards, 4 TD), a third-year varsity performer, but he has been locked in a summer-long battle to play quarterback with junior Terrance Miller-Allen (6-2, 170). The versatile Gaddy has experience at multiple positions.
A player the coaching staff thinks highly of is junior Joseph "Jojo" Span, a 5-10, 175-pound wingback who Rohde said is "probably the best athlete in our program. He runs a 4.5 (40-yard dash), he's the shiftiest, he has the best feet." Span will also play cornerback.
Senior Trae Sallis (5-10, 175) will play fullback, as will power runner Austin Waarich (6-0, 200).
The offensive line has come a long way since last season, when all but one player was new to varsity line play. All five offensive linemen return with experience on one side of the ball or the other, and all have gotten stronger in the weight room. "I feel 100 times better about our line than I did this time last year," Rohde said.
Center Ariel Barazza (5-10, 220), guards David Dranka (5-10, 220) and Ian Bonilla (5-10, 225), tackles Alex Guerrero (6-3, 250) and Mike Behning (6-2, 185) and junior Maurice Griffith (5-9, 215) form an athletic front line. That unit will work to create running room for playmakers like Smith, Span and Gaddy, not to mention talented reserves like Tyrese Riley, Clay White, Dean Anderson and Desmond Douglas.
Defensively, the line is fortified by high-motor tackle Fernando Varga (6-1, 250) and Bonds at end. Angel Aniceto (5-9, 170) will play nose and Bonilla is in the tackle mix.
Behning brings experience at linebacker and will be joined at that position by Anthony Sharks, a 6-2, 185-pound junior who "runs around like a missile trying to hit people," his coach said. White will start at cornerback opposite Higgins, while Gaddy and Smith return as safeties.
A point of emphasis all summer and through preseason camp has been the turnover margin. The Elgin offense turned the ball over 9 more times last season than the defense forced take-aways.
"That's all we talk about," Rohde said. "With all the athletes we have starting and all the athletes we have as backups, we're really looking to score on defense and special teams and just take care of the ball on offense."