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CENTRAL POINT — No team in the Southwest Conference returns as many starters on each side of the ball as the Crater Comets, but that's not stopping head coach John Beck from downplaying his team's outlook for the football season.
"We're just kinda hoping to be competitive and try to play hard every game and see how we do," said the ninth-year Crater coach. "You never know in this league."
Whatever concerns Beck may foster — and there truly aren't many — they're not shared by the rest of the SWC coaches, who have picked the Comets to finish third behind Sheldon and South Medford in the preseason coaches poll.
Headlining the list of returners for Crater are senior two-way performers Derrick Turituri and RJ Morgan, who have each given verbal commitments to the University of Arizona. Both expect to spearhead a defense that brings back seven starters and boasts quality depth at each level.
Turituri is a 6-foot-21/2, 230-pound force at outside linebacker, with the power to overwhelm linemen in the trenches and the speed to gain ground on any ballcarrier. He was a first-team all-SWC selection on both sides of the ball last year.
Morgan worked hard to improve his status in the offseason and comes in at 6-2 and 215 pounds as a safety that can also roll down and play linebacker.
While both players are excited about their futures, Morgan said neither is interested in concentrating on those prospects just yet.
"Every time I talk about (Arizona) I get excited and stuff but I'm not going to say now that I have that scholarship I'm not going to play my hardest because that would take away from my team now," said Morgan. "I'll think about what's going to be in the future. Right now I know I need to be the best athlete I can be to help my team. I'm just so focused on ending my high school career on a good note."
With so much talent surrounding the future Wildcats, such aspirations are entirely possible for the Comets.
Senior Ty Wolf (6-0, 210) returns at linebacker and the defensive line is in good hands with senior returners Sal Flores (5-7, 215), Michael Crippen (5-10, 230) and Eduardo Duran (6-0, 195). In the secondary, senior cornerback Andrew Horton (5-9, 160) returns to the starting lineup.
Rounding out a defense that aims to improve on last year's 330 yards and 25 points allowed per game will be linebackers Carlos Higuerra, Blake Fahndrich and Ty Fox and safety Davey McCollum.
"We've got a couple guys returning and a couple kids that are pretty decent," Beck said of his defense. "We can run around a little bit."
Quarterback Chase Mackey will get back behind the center after a junior campaign that was rocked by bouts with mononucleosis and tonsillitis and cost him about half of the season. Even with the lost time, Mackey was still able to run for more than 150 yards and two scores and complete 44 of 80 passes for 576 yards and five TDs.
"He's a pretty good athlete and he doesn't let things affect him," said Beck. "He's pretty calm and cool. We're hoping he's through with all those illnesses and can stay healthy for us."
Wolf's presence will certainly help provide balance to the Crater attack. He was the fifth-leading rusher in the SWC with 536 yards on 75 carries (7.1 yards per carry) during a regular season that saw six Comets eclipse 100 yards rushing.
"He's a physical runner and has got pretty good speed," said Beck. "He's a very intelligent runner."
Higuerra and Fahndrich will provide backfield depth to help move the chains, with Turituri and fleet-footed receiver Kory Bennett also capable of gaining large chunks of real estate at a time. Turituri and Bennett will be joined on the perimeter by returning starter Dakota Massey to give Mackey plenty of options when he chooses to air it out.
All things on offense will be made possible thanks to the return of starting senior linemen Micah Thomas (6-3, 205), Mac Mega (6-2, 215) and Chase Hamilton (6-1, 218), with senior center Mitch Lawson (6-1, 220) also charged with helping push back the defense.
Special teams could also be considered a strength for the Comets thanks to the return of Massey and Wolf, who were also second-team all-SWC selections last season at placekicker and punter, respectively.
With almost two dozen varsity returners — nine starters on offense and seven on defense — Beck said the main ingredient for his team to take the next step in its third season at the 6A level will be in taking care of the little things that matter most.
"We need to execute better on both sides of the ball to be competitive with the teams we're going to face," he said. "No matter who we're playing, in our conference or outside of our conference, for us just to be competitive with these teams we've got to really execute at a super high level."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry