John Musser made the commitment to switching up Grants Pass' style of play when his current group of seniors were incoming freshmen, and there's reason to believe that move could pay off this year.
Grants Pass boasts the best size it's had on the line in a decade, according to Musser, and the type of playmakers it takes to make its fast-paced, option-based attack fly down the field.
"I'm feeling like we're getting a pretty good run of athletes now and have a system of X's and O's in place now where the kids have been running it for a while," said Musser, in his sixth season as head coach. "This group of seniors is the first group that's been running it the whole way through, and this year's juniors are the first group really that's used it to their advantage."
Last year's freshman and junior varsity squads combined for a 17-1 record, which is a far cry from the struggles the Cavemen endured in Musser's early years.
"When we started on this tailspin of losing, that group of kids did nothing less than the groups before them that went 9-2 in the years I coached with Tom (Blanchard)," added the coach. "These kids have bought into the program and worked their butts off, hopefully they'll be rewarded for it."
The Cavemen typically have a stingy defense regardless of the overall record. They expect to be solid on the front line with returners Drake Brennan (6-8, 232), Ethan Straw (6-3, 214), Travis Gergel (6-3, 233) and Jordan Thatcher (5-10, 200). Brennan and Thatcher each were all-conference selections last year for a defense that allowed 309 yards per game.
"That's definitely the foundation of the defense, those four guys up front," said Musser. "They've got some nice size and are good, rangy athletes. This is one of the biggest defensive lines we've had."
Adding support will be returning linebackers Garret Lofing (6-1, 200) and Jonah Musser (6-1, 203) and safety Ben Glaeser (5-11, 190).
Big things are also expected of sophomore safety Easton Bents and linebackers Trevyn Reed, Brandon Amaral and Keil Nicholas, while development in the secondary will hold the key to GP being able to trim the 29 points per game it allowed last year.
As much promise as his defense boasts, Musser said his offense is actually ahead of that group thus far.
Returning senior linemen Zach Randall (6-4, 225), Walker Pope (5-10, 273) and Jake Hathaway (5-11, 200) have helped spark that surge — with Brennan settling in at tight end for added benefit — and Jonah Musser and J.C. McKinley stepping up on the perimeter to advance GP's play-action passing game.
At the heart of the offense, however, is a quarterback position full of promise but not without questions. Junior Javan Appling finished up the season for the Cavemen last year and has taken the reins to start the 2013 campaign.
"Javan's just everything you'd hope for in a quarterback with his leadership ability and his intelligence," said Musser. "He's one of those kids who can kinda pick you apart underneath and runs our option scheme well."
Glaeser also will see time at quarterback as GP puts in some special packages for the athletic senior, while Bents was a runaway freight train at QB during his freshman campaign but likely will focus more on defense this year.
Also in the backfield will be varsity newcomers Ben Dean and Reed, who each had considerable success for the JV.
"They know the offense and they've been pretty productive at that position," said Musser.
As for a team goal, the Cavemen have their sights set on one of the SWC's four automatic berths to the state playoffs.
"In my heart I believe that's possible," said Musser. "I would like to have a weekend off in early November where we're not just scratching and clawing for our lives (in a play-in game)."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry