When a football team loses three players who gained 70 percent of its yards the previous season, there’s usually not much room for optimism. So why is St. Mary’s High head coach Jay Lawson so upbeat about the upcoming season?
“I feel better heading into this season than I did last year,” Lawson said. “We’ve got a lot of talent coming back.”
While tailback Trestin George and receivers Chase Moore and Courtney Brown have taken their prodigious talents to college campuses, Lawson has the rest of his offense back, including quarterback Steve Murphy, who went through on-the-job training last season after moving behind center two months before the first game.
Lawson, who took over as head coach last season, also welcomes back nine varsity linemen, an amazing number considering he will only carry 28 players on his roster. Even the loss of 280-pound junior Jon Taranto to a knee injury in a scrimmage doesn’t hurt too much with so many experienced linemen in the fold.
Leading the charge on in the trenches will be 6-foot-6, 290-pound Leon Drummer, who has verbally committed to play at Cal next season. Drummer is following closely in the footsteps of current Cal sophomore Lorenzo Alexander, who ended his St. Mary’s career with All-America honors. Drummer has the potential to do the same and should dominate on both sides of the ball.
Taranto’s injury did put an end to plans to play 275-pound Jarrell Booker next to Drummer on the left side of the offensive line, a sight that would have made any defensive lineman weak-kneed. Booker will switch over to the right side, providing Murphy with the biggest bookends in the Bay Area to protect him in the pocket. Throw in 260-pound Ed Cheveres and the Panthers shouldn’t have to worry much about opposing linemen getting a big push.
The line will need to be strong following the graduation of George, who ended his St. Mary’s career with the school rushing and scoring records. Junior Fred Hives steps into George’s XXL-sized shoes, but he’s not as fast or explosive as his predecessor. Hives should excel running between the tackles, however, with a bruising running style.
“We’re definitely going to run the ball inside more with Fred,” Lawson said. “Behind our linemen, Fred could be just as productive as Trestin.”
Murphy should be much-improved this season, although he was impressive during the latter stages of last season while throwing 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Murphy is the unquestioned leader of the offense and has tightened his throwing motion. His improved pocket presence, combined with his speed, should make him one of the Bay Area’s top run-throw threats.
“Murphy will be huge for us this year,” Lawson said. “He’s really improved his intangibles. By the end of last season, he was leading the team really well, and he’s a dramatically improved player.”
Sophomore Scott Tully will also get some snaps this season as Lawson grooms him to take over when Murphy graduates. Tully is a prototypical pocket passer at 6-foot-3 and has a stronger arm than Murphy. When St. Mary’s gets out to a comfortable lead Murphy will shift into the backfield with Tully at quarterback.
The main target in the passing game will be wideout Ryan Coogler, a speed-burner who made some big plays last season. The senior, also an outstanding track performer, will provide a deep threat to keep defenses honest. Nick Osborn moves from the interior line to take over for Moore at tight end. While not as athletic as Moore, Osborn is a better blocker and a big target for Murphy on short routes.
With only 28 players, Lawson obviously needs most of his talented players to go both ways. Drummer and Booker will anchor the defensive line, while Coogler and Murphy will play cornerback. Murphy is a major-college prospect as a defensive back, where he was the Most Valuable Defensive Player at Cal’s summer camp.
“I like to play both positions as much as possible,” Murphy said. “I’ll end up being a cornerback in college, but quarterback is probably more important to the team right now.”
Lawson will balance Murphy’s offensive leadership with his defensive playmaking, along with his other two-way players. The Panthers actually had fewer varsity players last season, so there should be more chances to give Lawson’s stars a breather during games this year.
“I think we’ve got enough players this year that we should be able to give guys a few series off in every game,” Lawson said.
The Panthers have a tough non-league schedule, with games against Oakland Tech, McClymonds and El Cerrito. The biggest test comes today, however, in powerful Bishop O’Dowd, a traditional rival from back in the days of the old ACCAL. The game, which was originally scheduled for Saturday at El Cerrito High’s field, was moved to St. Mary’s due to a field conflict. The Dragons downed St. Mary’s, 27-6, to start last season at O’Dowd’s field in Oakland, so the Panthers are anxious to get a shot at revenge.
“I’ve been waiting for this game since they beat us last year,” Murphy said. “We’ve been working all summer to beat them.”
St. Mary’s is the consensus favorite in the Bay Shore Athletic League, which the Panthers won with a dramatic last-minute win over rival Piedmont last season. Piedmont will look to emphasize the running game after losing quarterback Drew Olson to UCLA, where he played a key role in the Bruins’ comeback win over Colorado State last week. John Swett and St. Patrick could also challenge for the league title.