Football preview: Big shoes to fill at Casa Grande

Casa Grande coach Trent Herzog addresses his players at a recent practice. Credit: John Burgess / Press Democrat

Casa Grande coach Trent Herzog addresses his players at a recent practice.
Credit: John Burgess / Press Democrat

By RICHARD MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Two things are for certain this season at Casa Grande: The Gauchos will have a target on their backs, and they have a huge offensive hole to fill due to the graduation of last season’s all-everything quarterback JaJuan Lawson.

Under Lawson’s stewardship, Casa (13-1, 7-0 in the North Bay League) won the NBL and went deep into the CIF North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs. The Gauchos’ 41-28 home loss to Miramonte in the D2 championship game likely left them one game short of reaching the Northern California championship game.

“Losing to Miramonte was a hard one to swallow, but a week after that game we reflected on what a great season we had. It was a fun year,” Casa Grande coach Trent Herzog said. “We have a different deck of cards this year but we still have some aces. Our superstars this year are at different positions.”

Even with the disappointing season ending, Herzog said without question that 2013 was the school’s best team in its 39 years of football history. Beginning in 2000, Casa Grande’s recent gridiron tradition includes winning 10 NBL or Sonoma County League titles.

Lawson, now a quarterback at the University of New Mexico, was a part of 32 touchdowns, and had more than 2,000 yards passing and better than 1,100 yards rushing. He accounted for roughly 65 percent of the Gauchos’ offensive yardage last season and was named The Press Democrat’s 2013 Large School Offensive Player of the Year.

“We are going to miss JaJuan but we will move on and other players will create their own legacies and identities,” Herzog said. “I like our leadership and overall size of the team. Our team depth is good top to bottom. We have experience at some spots (offensive line, kicker, linebacker) but are very inexperienced at the skill positions, which is a concern, but the skill is there.”

The battle to replace Lawson is between two quarterbacks —senior Brent Eger and junior J.J. Anderson.
“Both of these guys are pro-style passers and can run if they want to,” Herzog said. “They aren’t JaJuan but they both have their own style and we will adapt to that style.”

Fortunately, whoever is at quarterback will be parked behind a massive offensive line (average size: 6-foot-3, 275 pounds) that is very experienced, talented and confident.

“Our offensive line is going to be the base of everything offensively,” said senior guard Brendan Jackson. “We are much stronger physically and have way more depth in the offensive line this year.”

“It will definitely be an adjustment (losing Lawson). Last year we had one of the best quarterbacks I have ever seen. It will be a big hole to fill,” added senior guard Peter Parrick. “No matter what, though, whoever is quarterback is going to be protected by our offensive line.”

The offense returns six starters and will likely rely on a high-percentage passing game and a ground attack by a committee of four running backs. Herzog said the offense will benefit from the addition of senior Jaleel Lawson — JaJuan’s brother — at wide receiver. Jaleel missed most of his sophomore and junior seasons with a leg injury that required two surgeries.

“Jaleel will be an impact player,” Herzog said. “We are expecting big things from him.”

The defense also lost some leaders to graduation. That includes Press Democrat 2013 All-Redwood Empire Defensive Player of the Year John Porchivina, now playing for Cal as a running back. With only four returning starters, the defense will be anchored by veteran senior linebacker Casey Longaker.

“The loss to Miramonte is motivation for this season. I still think about it,” Longaker said. “Glad I could come back to hopefully help lead this team to a championship.”

As with last year, Casa Grande will have an advantage against almost every opponent in the kicking game thanks to senior Matt Abramo, who will play for Washington State next year. Abramo consistently sends kick-offs into the end zone and is a weapon in tight games due to his reliability booting field goals.

“Abramo is one of the top kickers on the West Coast. He is one of the greatest kickers I’ve seen in high school football in my 20 years of coaching,” Herzog said. “He is a coach’s dream.”

Herzog said the NBL will be very tough this year and parity will reign, with five teams apt to be in the hunt for the title.

“The NBL is better top to bottom this year. Likely no team will go undefeated in league play and I wouldn’t be surprised if the league champion is 5-2,” Herzog said. “We are the reigning NBL champs so people have to go through us, but there are some really good teams out there.”

The Gauchos will find out immediately about their composition in their non-league opener on Aug. 29 at Analy, the 2013 SCL champion.

“We have the size and strength and Analy has the speed and quickness,” Parrick said. “It is going to be an exciting opening game.”

CASA GRANDE GAUCHOS

Coach: Trent Herzog (sixth year)
2013 record: 13-1, 7-0 in NBL (first place)
2013 JV record: 6-4

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Matt Abramo, Sr., K — One of the top kickers on the West Coast,. Consistently sends kickoffs into the end zone and is a factor in tight games.
Casey Longaker, Sr., LB/FB — Herzog said Longaker is probably the best linebacker returning in the Empire this year. Average speed, but has size, toughness and leadership.
Brendan Jackson, Sr., OL/DL — Herzog called him the “best offensive lineman I have ever coached.”
Peter Parrick, Sr., OL/DL — Great size (6-foot-4, 295) and one of the captains on the strength of the Gauchos team — the massive and experienced offensive line.

GAME NOT TO MISS
The final game of the season on Nov. 7 at Montgomery could be a battle to determine the NBL champion. The Gauchos beat the Vikings twice last season, 30-12 in the regular season and 42-13 in the CIF playoffs.

ALL-TIME HIGHLIGHT
Herzog said last year’s 40-28 win at Cardinal Newman in the final game of the NBL season is unparalleled. “Going 10-0 and winning the NBL championship at Cardinal Newman is as big as it gets,” Herzog said.

SCHEDULE
Aug. 29 at Analy 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 5 Napa 7:30 p.m.
Sept 12 Franklin 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 Bye
Sept. 26 at Rancho Cotate 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 3 at Windsor 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 10 at Ukiah 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 17 Cardinal Newman 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 Maria Carrillo 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 31 Santa Rosa 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 7 at Montgomery 7:30 p.m.