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GRANTS PASS — With seven returning starters on offense and four others on defense, Grants Pass head coach John Musser likes the pieces he has for the 2012 football season — he just wishes there were more of them.
"If we come together and stay healthy," he said, "this is a group of kids I feel good about, we just don't have a lot of depth."
Leading that charge will be third-year starting quarterback Hunter Rich, who should have an even better handle on the option-based offensive scheme installed by the Cavemen last season.
"He's looked really good over the summer and he's making a lot of pretty good reads on our option stuff," Musser said of the left-hander. "The thing about it, Hunter's got a little savvy and the kind of gamesmanship that we like."
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound senior has completed about half of his passes over the past two years (101 of 214 for 1,475 yards) and averaged 3 yards per carry last season.
Senior tailback Anthony Mattie is also expected to help shoulder the load for the Cavemen, who averaged only 236 yards per game on offense last season. Mattie suffered through a myriad of injuries that slowed his progress in 2011, finishing with only 60 yards on 20 carries while also holding down duties as safety on defense. Still, the 5-10, 185-pounder could be key to GP's ability to move the ball this season.
"He's huge with this team," said Musser. "This kid is tough as an axe handle but he has to stay healthy. He's the most explosive player we have."
Steven Etheridge (6-0, 215) will be called upon in the backfield to take some of the burden off Mattie and Rich and also bring an element of physicality to the running game.
"Etheridge is just a load running the ball," said Musser. "He's strong and runs downhill and if you're looking to tackle him, he'll make you pay for it."
Senior linemen Kyle Miller (6-1, 220), Jared Thomason (5-8, 210) and Jeremy Favazza (6-0, 240) return as starters to help pave the way, along with speedy receiver Riley Veritch.
Receiver Bracken Sharp and H-back Chris Leenknecht provide capable targets for Rich, along with tight end Jonah Musser.
"We've got about seven kids we feel we need to get the ball to," said Musser. "Hopefully we can show some balance and keep teams guessing a little."
Defensively, the Cavemen expect to be athletic and quick to the ball in their 4-3 scheme, especially at linebacker where Etheridge returns on the inside. Etheridge was an honorable mention all-conference pick from a year ago and will be complemented by Mattie, Thomason and the younger Musser.
"We've got good size at linebacker," said the coach. "They're not tall but the first group moves around pretty good."
Holding things down on the front line will be noseguard Jordan Thatcher (5-10, 210), tackle Travis Gergel (6-4, 235) and ends Miller and Mike VanLohuizen (6-1, 200). In the secondary, second-team all-SWC pick Veritch returns at corner and will be supported by safeties Caeman Nicholas and Ben Glaeser and cornerback Kellen Brown.
"I really like what we look like on defense right now," said Musser, who has turned over the reigns of that unit to assistant coach Jenner Yriarte.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry