SRJC reinvigorated with Wagner back

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SRJC quarterback David Sowards, left, hands the ball off to running back K'Lan Anderson during practice in Santa Rosa, on Friday. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/The Press Democrat)

SRJC quarterback David Sowards, left, hands the ball off to running back K’Lan Anderson during practice in Santa Rosa, on Friday. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/The Press Democrat)

Lenny Wagner is back at Santa Rosa Junior College. And the Bear Cubs are going back to basics.

Wagner, the long-time defensive coordinator who spent two years away from the program to deal with family medical issues, returned as head coach after Keith Simons stepped down last December. And while Wagner has utmost respect and affection for Simons, he has wasted no time in tinkering with SRJC’s game plan.

On offense, the Bear Cubs are moving away from the pass-happy spread system that Simons used for years to exhaust opposing defenses — and frequently his own defense, which spent a lot of time on the field — and toward a more balanced, run-friendly attack.

“It wasn’t like there was a big drop-off in that scheme,” Wagner said. “I just think that for the type of personnel we have on both sides of the ball, the lack of depth that we sometimes have at key positions, that we need to try to slow the tempo down a little bit. I know people think I’m crazy, because everybody wants to speed it up right now. But if we can slow it down a little bit, I think it would allow our players to not get so worn out.”

The starting quarterback is David Sowards, a fourth-year sophomore. And yes, you read that last part correctly. Sowards grayshirted his first year at the JC. The next year he broke his arm while recovering an onside kick — he was on the “hands” team despite having quarterbacked the Bear Cubs back from a deficit earlier in the same game — and successfully petitioned for an additional year of eligibility.

Sowards pulled away in a crowded quarterback competition this year, impressing Wagner with his leadership, his grasp of the game and his accountability.

If the Bear Cubs are a little less flashy this year, that doesn’t mean they are without firepower. Guys like running back K’Lan Anderson (Vallejo) and wide receiver Andre Davis (Baltimore, Md.) bring big-play ability to the offense.
On the defensive side, Wagner will restore the scheme he ran here as coordinator — five defensive backs, one safety high, like Wagner’s mentor, Gary Patterson, runs at TCU. More important, Wagner’s system will be simplified, with fewer moving parts.

“I don’t want to talk down about last year, but there were some times we were on the field and I think we were thinking too much, and we couldn’t just go out there and use our athleticism,” said outside linebacker Austin Shull, a Montgomery High graduate. “Whereas this year, it’s so easy. You just know your assignment, and you do it.”

Really, though, Wagner’s impact goes way beyond Xs and Os. SRJC went 3-7 and lost seven of its final eight games last year, and frequently looked sloppy in doing so.

Simons was openly disappointed with his players’ efforts at times, and frustrated by turnovers and penalties. The season fell far below the standards Simons had established during his 17 seasons at the school, and morale was low.

Wagner, who played at Sonoma State and coached under Simons for 11 years, brought an instant dose of energy and optimism to the program. He and his staff have worked hard to keep their student-athletes grade-eligible. They are also doing things like filming practices and reviewing them with players, something that wasn’t done last year.

“The biggest thing is we enjoy going to practice every day,” Sowards said. “I know from an offensive standpoint we all love coming to practice every day. And I can tell the defense is out there having fun. We’re scrimmaging each other every day, they’re out there laughing and cracking jokes with each other. But we’re getting better at the same time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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