CENTRAL POINT — A tougher schedule helped prime Crater for the state playoffs last year, and the weekly challenges this season are sure to keep the Comets on their toes once again.

CENTRAL POINT — A tougher schedule helped prime Crater for the state playoffs last year, and the weekly challenges this season are sure to keep the Comets on their toes once again.

With nonconference road tests at Wilsonville, Jefferson, North Medford and Oregon city, Crater is sure to be tested in its pursuit of a third straight trip to the Class 5A state playoffs.

Helping ease the workload, however, will be a two-platoon system put in place to take advantage of a myriad of skill players in the Crater program.

"This is the first time I've ever been able to do that, not even at North (Medford)," fifth-year Crater coach John Beck says of having a set of offensive starters and another unique set of defensive starters. "We have a lot of fast, good athletes, and we figured some of them are kinda specialty guys so it just kinda fits. We've got a lot of skill kids, especially a lot of juniors, so we're not really giving up anything by playing those guys one way."

There are at least two exceptions to the rule, however. Returning inside linebackers Kenny Fahndrich and Darrio Mobley are so dominant defensively and still so vital to the offensive scheme at fullback and tight end, respectively, that Beck can't see limiting their playing time on Friday nights.

"I really feel they're two of the best linebackers in the state, at any level," says the coach. "They're two college-type athletes running around making plays and are kind of the heart and soul of the defense, for the most part."

Fahndrich and Mobley are the only returning starters to a defense that led the Southern Sky Conference in allowing an average of only 253.6 yards per game last season, but that doesn't mean Beck expects his defense to take a step back.

Nose guard Michael Bishop, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound junior, has already proven himself to have a relentless motor and uncanny ability for pursuit down the line of scrimmage. Fellow juniors, safety Sammy Clark and cornerback Jacob Ziegler, also made quite an impression with helmet rattling hits at the Linfield camp this summer.

"I think some of our guys have anger issues or something," Beck said in tongue-in-cheek fashion of the four knockout blows the Comets administered at Linfield.

Beck expects to rotate Tate Stevens, Cory Slocum and Zack Zelecki at defensive end, with another rotation slated among a trio of junior outside linebackers in Parker Etchison, Cody Ullom and Devin Massey.

Christian Massey, a junior cousin of Devin, will handle one of the safety slots to go with his placekicking chores, with cornerback Ryan Sonday rounding out the starting secondary.

While the defense expects to be a work in progress, Crater's offense is primed for another breakout campaign thanks to the return of tailback D.J. Pree and five other starters.

The 5-9, 185-pound Pree led the Southern Sky in rushing with 1,095 yards and nine touchdowns on 179 carries (6.1 yards per carry) in the regular season. Fahndrich chipped in with 478 yards and five TDs on 63 carries (7.6 yards per carry) last year as Crater churned up nearly 250 yards per game on the ground and 345 overall.

"They're just playmakers," Beck says of Pree and Fahndrich. "They're not just good kids with the ball, they're good blockers and do all those extra things that help your offense go. I have 100 percent confidence in both those kids."

The same goes for starting quarterback Josh Lokeno, who saw increased action as the season progressed last year and wound up averaging 7.8 yards per carry in support of Nick Brothers in the Comets' spread offense attack.

"His decision-making is his strength," Beck says of Lokeno, whom he compares favorably to North Medford's Jordan Ellis. "He has the ability to either tuck it and run or throw to the open guy when we break him out, and he can also drop back and thread it (to a receiver) when he needs to."

Beck says Lokeno was outstanding during 7-on-7 scrimmages in the summer and the senior continues to press himself to sharpen his skills in hopes of a big season.

Making the Comets' attack even more potent will be a host of receivers that includes do-it-all wideout Garell Staten and fellow seniors Tyler Hogensen, Connor Quigley and Danny Mitchell among others.

"We have so many good receivers, we just want to get the ball in those kids' hands and let them do their thing," Beck says. "And then when you have D.J. and Kenny in the backfield ... we just want to spread it all out so no one can key on one thing."

Making it all work will be a revamped offensive line that says goodbye to 300-pounders Tyson Hoffman and Anthony Timmerman but welcomes a host of technicians in the trenches.

Right tackle Cody Osuna (6-5, 280) returns and will be joined by first-year starters T.J. Reed (5-9, 250), Rogan VanOrgen (6-0, 250), Wayne Hoyt (6-1, 245) and Bryant Bleth (6-1, 230).

"We're not that little, it's just compared to the past we're little," says Beck. "But I really like their athleticism, the communication between each other and their intelligence. This group really takes pride in their technique."

Putting it all together will be the challenge of Beck and his myriad of assistants, but the Comets are certainly optimistic about contending for the SSC title and, hopefully, a state crown as well.

"If we just stay healthy and do the things we need to do, we have a chance to be really decent," says Beck.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com