Relying on skill: Raptors look to defend SEC crown
Raptors head coach Mike Pendino spent the good portion of a recent preseason practice following his offensive line around the field.
Pendino spent the practice grilling his five projected starting linemen. He harped on their mistakes, directed their techniques and occasionally, briefly, acknowledged a few things they did well.
“Even though I get on them all the time, they’re doing a nice job,” Pendino said. “They’re the guys where you’ve got to get on them.”
East Ridge built its success through the trenches last season.
The Raptors rode powerful offensive and defensive lines, highlighted by Alabama recruit J.C. Hassenauer, to an 8-2 record and a Suburban East Conference championship.
But all five of the starting linemen from a year ago are gone, meaning it’s time for five fresh faces, all with a serious lack of varsity experience, to step in.
“They’ve got to learn to play under pressure and how to play when it’s fourth down and one,” Pendino said. “No one knows your name, but you’ve got to get the yard for us. … The talent’s there, it’s just learning to play at this level.”
Still, even with Pendino, the Minnesota Gophers offensive line coach in 1990-91, seemingly spending every second of every practice with his offensive linemen as he attempts to whip them into shape, he expects it to take until about week three for all of them to mesh and adjust to the varsity level.
Until then, the Raptors must rely on their skill players to produce, sometimes on their own.
“Last year we relied on the O-line, this year we’re going to have to rely on the skill guys making plays,” Pendino said. “They’re going to have to adlib a little bit, they’re going to have to make stuff up on the go, but they’re going to have to make plays for us, especially early in the year.”
Luckily for the Raptors, at East Ridge, skill players are plentiful.
On offense, East Ridge has multiple returners who have displayed the ability to make plays in the past.
Raptors quarterback Seth Green will start under center for the third consecutive season. Green, who’s the top-dual threat quarterback in the state, has received scholarship offers from various top Division-I colleges, most recently Oregon, after leading the Raptors to big-time success in his first two years as the signal caller.
This year provides a new challenge for Green. With the new offensive line, Green has the added duty of making sure everyone knows what to do on every play in every scenario.
It gives him added control, but is also an added responsibility.
“It’s going to be on his shoulders,” Pendino said. “He’s got to carry the load this year. … He’s been around, this is his third year. He’s not a youngster anymore, so everything’s open for him now. He can do it all.”
Green has the luxury of having multiple experienced weapons at his disposal in 2014. Kjetile Cline and Dominik London highlight the talented returners at the offensive skill positions.
Green said it feels like he and his receivers have had another entire season of experience together under their belts from all of the offseason work they put in this year.
“The whole receiving crew’s been putting in the work,” Cline said. “We always throw in the afternoon just after we get out and just throw as much as we can, so we’re really starting to mesh as an offense, same with the O-Line, so it’s really starting to come together.”
Defensively the Raptors return five starters, but only one of those is on the defensive line.
Pendino said the secondary will be East Ridge’s strongest unit. It’s a secondary that features an abundance of experience. At the corner spots are Jack Dwyer, a captain, and Kyle Orehosky, with captain Sam Cobbs patrolling the third layer of the defense from the safety position. All three have a wealth of experience at the varsity level.
“The secondary is holding it down,” Dwyer said with a smile.
Pendino said all four of his linebackers, though inexperienced, have been “outstanding” this offseason. And the defensive line figures to be anchored by defensive tackle Jojo Garcia, who enters his junior year with scholarship offers from the likes of Minnesota and Michigan State and defensive tackle.
All in all, Pendino said his defense has a chance to be “pretty good” this season.
“It’s just a matter of them getting some experience and seeing things,” he said. “Once they get the hang of it, they’re going to be pretty good.”
The same could be said for the entire Raptors’ squad, including Pendino’s prime project, that offensive line.
“The offensive line is probably putting in as much work or more work than any O-Line ever,” Cobbs said. “So even if we don’t have the talent that we did last year, they’re definitely going to be conditioned and they’re going to be ready. Because we’re going live every practice, and we hardly ever did that last year.”
Despite the loss of 29 seniors from last year’s squad, East Ridge isn’t lowering its goals whatsoever. Pendino said the goal is to win another conference championship and advance to the state tournament, something the Raptors have fallen one game short of each of the last few seasons.
“It’s the No. 1 goal,” Green said. “There’s nothing you can put above it. Because if you achieved that goal, then you achieved everything under it to get to that point. We know what we have to do.”
What this year’s squad lacks in experience, it may make up for in camaraderie.
“This year we’re coming as more of a team,” Cobbs said. “Last year we were doing it individually, but it seems like everyone’s coming together and we’ve all played together our whole lives and we know each other like that and we’re going to get there.”
And despite the massive turnover from a year ago, this year’s roster won’t suffer from a lack of talent. Because at East Ridge the football program doesn’t rebuild, it reloads.
“We’re just retooling,” Pendino said. “The expectations are the same, and we’re just going to keep playing.”
For more on East Ridge's 2014 outlook, check out our Raptors' preview video.