When he was putting together his initial football staff at North Medford High, Mike Mitchell put a particularly different spin on his...
CENTRAL POINT — If this is to be Crater's final football season at the state's largest classification, then the Comets hope to finish with a bang.
Should reclassification plans for the upcoming time block be approved by the Oregon School Activities Association, Crater will drop back down to the Class 5A level in 2014 after a three-year run at 6A.
Before the Comets make that move, however, they would like to take one last shot at the Southwest Conference hierarchy. A year ago, Crater finished fourth in the SWC for its highest showing and, despite only a handful of returning starters, the Comets are optimistic they can continue their climb in one of the state's toughest conferences.
"It's the same old story but if we can stay healthy and we can execute and stop anybody, who knows what can happen," said Crater head coach John Beck. "With some of the stuff we're doing, when we get rolling we don't look too bad."
Helping provide inspiration for the Comets, whose last large-school conference title came in 1985, is a little backs-against-the-wall mentality that comes with being slotted in the bottom tier of the preseason SWC coaches' poll.
"Our kids have a chip on their shoulder because everybody thinks they're not going to be very good," said Beck. "At least that's the rumor because we lost all our linemen and (Derrick) Turituri. The kids are excited, so we'll see."
While Turituri and teammate RJ Morgan moved on to the University of Arizona, the Comets still boast a number of skillful players waiting in the wings.
To maximize their potential, Beck has the Comets flying around at a blinding pace, shuffling in athlete after athlete to keep the energy level high.
"We feel we have really athletic kids," said the coach. "We're not big, slow hammerheads, we're athletic type of kids that can get out and run, and we need to utilize that. We're probably not as physical this year as we have been before where we hit you hard and then catch you off guard with our athleticism. This year we're more athletic and then surprise you with how physical we can be."
Two players who exemplify that are returning seniors Carlos Higuera and Davey McCollum. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Higuera is a threat to go the distance at running back but also is capable of knocking opponents backward with his determined play at linebacker. The 6-2, 212-pound McCollum is in the same mold, capable of playing coverage at safety while also sliding down to linebacker and wreaking havoc on the backfield.
Higuera, who was a second-team all-SWC linebacker in 2012, will be especially important on offense after the Comets lost senior Blake Fahndrich to a torn labrum during summer baseball. Fahndrich, expected to be a key ball carrier and linebacker, will miss the season after undergoing surgery in mid-July.
Last season, Higuera carried the ball 76 times for 327 yards and three touchdowns and caught seven passes for 65 yards. For the Comets to be efficient on offense, the senior will need to be even more productive. McCollum will also see time in the backfield.
"We think Carlos is a scholarship kid, as well as Davey and Ty (Fox) and (Kory) Bennett," said Beck. "He's a big, physical athlete that can play anywhere. We've just got to get the ball in his hands and let him make plays."
Higuera won't be alone. The reason for the Comets' high-octane makeover stems from a bevy of playmakers on the perimeter that include returners Bennett, Dallin George and Taran Lewis as well as breakout candidate — and YouTube sensation — Austin Richmond.
Beck said the idea this season is to simplify the offense — with fewer than 20 plays entering the season opener — and borrow more from the Southern Oregon University scheme than the one employed at the University of Oregon. With a lot of interchangeable parts, ramping up the pace just seemed appropriate.
"Our stuff is fast," said the coach. "If we can get it going, we're as fast as anybody, I don't care who it is or what level it is."
"We have the personnel that fits," added Beck. "We've got guys on the line that can, for the most part, just do one side. If you have two-way guys, you've got to be real careful about hurry-up stuff because you burn them out, we found that out a few years ago."
Bennett was the team's second-leading receiver in 2012 with 19 catches for 199 yards and was a threat on the Comets' fly sweep, averaging 6.5 yards per carry on 19 attempts. Lewis pulled in 11 passes for 118 yards and George averaged 12 yards per reception
Richmond was ineligible last season but has created a stir with a video of him doing back flips while catching a football one-handed. The 5-10, 170-pound junior will look to take the same athleticism that brought him national notoriety, including on ESPN, to the playing field and give the Comets more versatility in the backfield and at receiver.
"Austin's crazy athletic," said Beck. "It's amazing what he can do."
Fox will be responsible for dispensing the ball. More of a pocket passer than Crater's previous quarterbacks, Fox offers a strong, accurate arm and a quick release.
"Our scheme gives him more answers now," said Beck. "There's two plays off every call so we've got answers for whatever he may see, and he's real football savvy."
The 6-2, 215-pound signal caller shared duties last year but still wound up passing for 484 yards and three scores with a 47-percent completion rate (35-for-74). His rushing totals were in the negative range, mostly because Fox preferred to give plays more time rather than break from the pocket.
"He's not going to go in there and grab-bag and run around," said Beck. "He's athletic and could do that, but that's not his gig."
This summer, Fox helped the Comets' American Legion A baseball team win the Northwest Regional championship.
"Being one of the main pitchers in baseball has helped him become more confident and helped him handle adversity better than when he was younger," said the coach. "With this offense, you can't get hung up on throwing an incompletion because you've only got a few seconds to get going again."
While Beck said he's confident in the team's ability to generate a new offensive line, that stands to determine whether the Comets will be a contender or pretender.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry