Football preview: Analy’s key playmakers return, but offensive line a question mark

Analy running back Ja’Narrick ‘Skittles’ James says the team hasn’t really needed to rebuild. (CRISTA JERAMIASON / The Press Democrat)

Analy running back Ja’Narrick ‘Skittles’ James says the team hasn’t really needed to rebuild.
(CRISTA JERAMIASON / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SEBASTOPOL — In 2013, the Analy Tigers fielded the best football team that anyone on campus can remember. They went undefeated in Sonoma County League play. Their only loss going into the playoffs was to Miramonte, a team that would go on to win the North Coast Section Division 2 championship. They beat Cardinal Newman — the standard bearer of Redwood Empire football — in the Division 3 playoffs before losing to powerful Marin Catholic in the semifinals.

The Tigers didn’t take long to reflect on their accomplishments, though. A week after the Marin Catholic loss, a core of about 10 returning players was back in the weight room, and back running routes (no coach required) on the practice field.

[RELATED: Check out a photo gallery from the Tigers’ practice on Wednesday]

“We feel like this is our time,” said one of those players, running back and return man Ja’Narrick James. “We know a lot of the other top schools that we were really competing with, every year they’ve kind of been cycling through. … And we feel like we’re the only team that hasn’t really had to rebuild.”

Indeed, Analy welcomes back its top rusher (James), its top receiver (Kerr Johnson Jr.), its starting quarterback (Will Smith), its top sacker (T.J. Acheson) and even its placekicker (Schuyler Van Weele) from last year’s 11-2 squad. If 2013 was the best season in the history of Analy football, 2014 could be even better.

And yet coach Daniel Bourdon sounds a cautionary note. Yes, he has all his playmakers back from last year’s team. But who exactly will block for them?

All five of Analy’s starting offensive linemen made the All-SCL team last season. But four of those oxen, including Lineman of the Year Jacob Hicks, graduated in June. The situation is similar on the defensive side of the ball.

“I don’t think people pay attention to the guys you lose up front as much as the guys who scored all the touchdowns for you,” Bourdon said. “But we probably had one of the best offensive lines since I’ve been around, without question.”

Now Bourdon isn’t exactly sure what he has up front. Jesse Erdmann, a second-team All-SCL pick in 2013, is back at guard. And Analy has its starting offensive tackles in seniors Henry Campbell and Zach Vangrin. But players are still fighting it out for the other two O-line positions. And even when the starters are selected, there’s no telling how well, and how quickly, they will come together as a unit. The Tigers don’t have long to sort it out. Their challenging preseason schedule kicks off against Casa Grande, the defending North Bay League champion, and ends with a game against McClymonds of Oakland, a team that fell four points shy of playing for a Division 4 state title in 2013.

Bourdon knows the SCL doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the league. The only way Analy can claim a high playoff seeding — and set itself up for a possible run at a state championship — is to fight some heavyweights in the preseason.

Fortunately for the Tigers, their playmakers give them the look of a contender.

Smith passed for 1,725 yards and 23 touchdowns last year, with just four interceptions, and he insists he’s a much better quarterback now with a full offseason to work with Analy assistant and former Santa Rosa JC head coach Keith Simons. The elusive, cube-shaped James ran for 1,176 yards and 25 touchdowns. Johnson had 1,202 yards and 11 scores as a receiver. All of them are seniors now.

Analy has another foe to contend with this season: Heightened expectations. Before our local league realignment in 2012, and before Bourdon built a West County football power in Sebastopol, the Tigers were happy to make the playoffs. Now that’s all but assumed.

“Every year, we fell just a little short of that NCS championship game,” Smith said. “It’s kind of our goal to get there, and get beyond there. To finish my senior year playing in one of those games, that wouldn’t be a bad way to end all this.”

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

Analy Tigers

Coach: Daniel Bourdon (7th year)
2013 record: 11-2 overall, 6-0 SCL (1st place)
2012 JV record: 7-3

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ja’Narrick James, RB/KR ­– The Empire’s most dynamic ball carrier is back for his senior year.
Kerr Johnson Jr., WR – A productive and versatile receiver with size and speed.
Will Smith, QB – He passed for 1,725 yards and 23 touchdowns as a junior last season.
T.J. Acheson, SS – A hard-hitting safety with a nose for the ball, Acheson can rush the QB, too.

GAME NOT TO MISS

Friday, Aug. 29, vs. Casa Grande: Local power rankings will become a bit clearer after the two most dominant teams from last year go head-to-head to start the 2014 preseason.

ALL-TIME HIGHLIGHT

Analy punctuated its best season in memory by knocking off local power Cardinal Newman in the North Coast Section playoffs last Nov. 22, sending the Tigers to the Division 3 semifinals for the second consecutive year.

SCHEDULE

Aug. 29  Casa Grande  7:30 p.m.
Sept. 5  Maria Carrillo  7:30 p.m.
Sept. 12  Bye
Sept. 19  at Montgomery  7:30 p.m.
Sept. 26  at McClymonds  7 p.m.
Oct. 3  Sonoma Valley  7:30 p.m.
Oct. 11  at Piner  1:30 p.m.
Oct. 17  Healdsburg  7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24  at El Molino  7:30 p.m.
Oct. 31  Elsie Allen  7:30 p.m.
Nov. 7  at Petaluma  7:30 p.m.

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