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ASHLAND — Last season, a big play was never more than a few downs away for the electric Ashland Grizzlies.
They scored 34 points a game and averaged 390 yards per contest on offense. On defense, they were just as dangerous: 21 sacks, 69 tackles for losses, nine forced fumbles and seven interceptions.
Behind it all, though, was an experienced crew of offensive and defensive linemen that quietly facilitated all those gaudy statistics with a relentless consistency.
Now that almost all of those linemen have graduated, ushering in a new generation of trench-hogs, Ashland eighth-year head coach Charlie Hall isn't sure what to expect.
"I hope we can run the ball, but that's to be determined," Hall said. "If we can't run the ball well on first and second down, we've got to try to be more creative."
The Grizzlies' offensive line will be almost completely refurbished. Junior Mason Montgomery is the only returner, and he will slide from center to left guard in an effort to cut down on his responsibility on offense so that he'll have plenty gas in the tank to handle his main role as one of the most dominant linebackers in the conference.
Junior Nate Carver moves from starting junior varsity center to starting varsity center, and junior Cody Frost-Eisenberg will protect quarterback Danial White's blind side at right tackle (White throws left-handed). Senior right guard Juan Carlos Gutierrez and junior left tackles Joe Hearn and Jacob Rehbein round out a front five that will be learning on the job starting with Friday's season opener at Klamath Union.
"It's probably our biggest area of concern," Hall said.
There isn't much concern when it comes to Ashland's skill position players. Starting receiver Quaid Walters, a small (5-foot-7, 145 pounds) but quick and shifty senior, returns to lead a receiving corps that includes some impressive athletes — senior RJ Atteberry (6-0, 175), junior Carter Glick (5-9, 155) and tight ends Tanner Shumway (6-3, 175) and Parker Layton (5-11, 175).
Leading rusher Jon Volz, who gained 1,134 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground last season, also returns, along with White, perhaps the most gifted playmaker of them all.
White gives Ashland a dual-threat quarterback — he passed for 1,508 yards and rushed for 907 last year as a sophomore — who figures to be more comfortable in his second season running the spread.
Already, in summer camps and preseason workouts, Hall has seen White take a big step forward in his development.
"Danial's a much better passer than he was a year ago," Hall said. "His arm's stronger, he understands the offense better, his release is quicker. He's done some things to really become a better quarterback, so all of those things are going to help give him a chance to be successful under what might be more stressful conditions than a year ago."
On defense, Montgomery (5-11, 195) and fellow returning linebacker Austin Chandler (5-9, 175), a senior, give the Grizzlies some much-needed experience, not to mention phenomenal play-making ability at perhaps the most important position on the field.
The other three returning starters are safeties Atteberry and Volz, and junior lineman Tyree Heesacker (5-10, 220), who injured his knee late in Ashland's 2011 playoff loss to Sherwood and is expected to miss the first three games of the season.
On the line, Frost-Eisenberg, Gutierrez and Hearn are expected to be the three workhorses initially, with a fourth down lineman yet to be determined.
Walters and junior Matt Hedges, who is also the kicker, will start on the corners, while junior Theo Whitcomb and sophomore Max Atteberry will also see some time there.
Layton, junior Ashur Beasley and senior Brandon Vaughan each will play linebacker for the Grizzlies. Vaughan's athleticism has intrigued Grizz coaches.
"We're looking for him to have a breakout year," Hall said.
For the second year in a row Montgomery led the Grizzlies in tackles last season with 89. So disruptive was Montgomery, Hall expects opposing offenses will try to avoid the third-year starter as much as possible.
"We've got to game plan him," Hall said, "make them run away from Mason, which plays into our hands a little bit because we may be able to dictate what offenses do. Then if they want to run at Mason, OK, well bring it — we'll measure your strength against our strength and hopefully we'll win more than you do."
Ashland was picked to finish second in the conference behind perennial favorite and state title contender Marist, which routed the Grizzlies 49-0 last season. Unless the Grizzlies exceed those expectations, they'll likely have to win a play-in game in order to advance to the newly-structured 16-team Class 5A state playoffs.
Only the top 24 teams in the final OSAA power poll will qualify for postseason play this year, with the top eight earning automatic berths to the sweet 16 regardless of their place in conference standings. And as always, wins will be tough to come by in the Midwestern League, which is loaded again.
"Marist is always going to be good," Hall said. "Churchill's going to be better. Springfield has tons of talent and a new coach from Marist. We played Willamette at the Linfield (College) camp and we're very comparable. It's going to be a dog fight."