Football preview: Ukiah ready to turn heads

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Ukiah running back Will King, center, prepares to run a route during practice Aug. 20 in Ukiah. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Ukiah running back Will King, center, prepares to run a route during practice Aug. 20 in Ukiah. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Coming off a rebuilding season, Ukiah is prepared to compete with the Empire’s best large school teams.

Big and strong up front, Ukiah will keep the game plan simple and straightforward: Disciplined, smashmouth football is the Wildcats’ way.

“We want to show people what Wildcats football is all about,” said Caden Johnson, an anchor along the line on both sides of the ball. “The team is really coming together.”

A two-year plan under coach Jeff Burrell for restoring winning football at Ukiah began with last season’s effort to bolster the roster and build confidence. Ukiah this season aims for a winning North Bay League mark and reaching the North Coast Section playoffs.

“We kind of set the benchmark last year. We increased our numbers and accountability,” Burrell said. “This year we want to take off. Our attitude is ‘Why can’t it be us?’ ”

What the Wildcats figure to do well is run the ball in an effort to control games. Fast and athletic on defense, Ukiah should improve at keeping contests close.

“We’ve built on last year. We’re confident we can win some games,” said Conner Acevedo, who returns at defensive end.

Success starts up front. Ukiah returns all starters on the offensive line, the players averaging 265 pounds.

Leading the big boys is Johnson, an All-NBL pick and college prospect who is still just a junior. Also back on the offensive line are two other All-NBL selections, Austin Hargreaves and Daniel Vargas. Victor Lopez returns at center with Acevedo the tight end.

“They’ve worked hard together. They’re committed,” Burrell said.

With a year of playing together, the offensive line promises even better execution and an overall higher level of play. Opponents should expect more pulling blocks and double teams, for instance, as the line seeks to power the Wildcats running game.

A trio of running backs gives Ukiah depth with the ball. The featured back is Will King, a physical runner. Joining him is newcomer Derante Lemelle, a transfer from San Francisco who is big and fast. Julio Alvarado also is difficult to bring down.

Leading the offense is quarterback Brett Hofstetter, up from junior varsity. He throws a good ball and a primary target will be Michael Russell, back at wide receiver.

Hofstetter is counted on to set a tone for limiting turnovers. Mistakes and penalties often were difficult for Ukiah to overcome a year ago.

“There’s no margin for error in our league,” Burrell said.

Size up front anchors a defense that also boasts speed at linebacker and in the backfield.

With both Johnson and Hargreaves complementing Acevedo up front, Ukiah could be tough on the run. Russell leads the defensive backfield.

“We pursue the ball really well,” Johnson said. “We can stay with guys and prevent the big plays.”

For the Wildcats to claw their way up the NBL ranks is challenging given the league’s depth of strong teams.

Still, the Ukiah squad expects to surprise opponents with a more competitive brand of football this season.

Bolstering that effort is a deeper roster and more players putting in the offseason work in the weight room and with conditioning.

“Showing up and being accountable carried over to the summer,” Burrell said. “Our players are committed to getting better.”

UKIAH WILDCATS

Coach: Jeff Burrell (2nd Year)
2013 record: 3-7 overall, 1-6 NBL (7th place)
2013 JV Record: 4-6

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Conner Acevedo, Sr., DE — Quick off the ball, the strong, athletic end anchors a defensive line that should be much improved. Acevedo was an All-NBL pick.
Caden Johnson, Jr., OL/DL — Big and physical, Johnson also is quick and athletic on both sides of the ball. The college prospect was an All-NBL selection.
Will King, Sr., RB/LB — King figures to lead a rushing attack that promises to grind out games. Also a linebacker, King is another of Ukiah’s many two-way players.
Brett Hofstetter, Jr., QB — Last year’s junior varsity starter has made a smooth transition to varsity.
Hofstetter is smart and throws a sharp ball.

GAME NOT TO MISS
Confident of improving on last season’s disappointing season, Ukiah gets its first North Bay League test Sept. 26 at Windsor. The league opener follows a challenging non-conference series of three games.

ALL-TIME HIGHLIGHT
Not long ago, Ukiah was a North Coast Section playoff regular. The Wildcats reached the NCS playoffs four times between 2002 and 2008 including back-to-back appearances in 2004 and 2005. But playoff wins have been elusive. The last Wildcats postseason win was in 1999 when Ukiah won three straight to take the Class 3A Redwood Empire title.

SCHEDULE
Sept. 5 – at Eureka, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 12 – at Oakland, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 – vs. Sutter, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 26 – at Windsor, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 3 – at Santa Rosa, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 10 – vs. Casa Grande, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 17 – vs. Montgomery, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 – at Newman, 7 p.m.
Oct. 31 – vs. Rancho Cotate, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 7 – at Maria Carrillo, 7:30 p.m