GRANTS PASS — Skeptics who questioned whether a John Musser-led football team could run with the big dogs were silenced on a memorable October night last season at Mel Ingram Field.

GRANTS PASS — Skeptics who questioned whether a John Musser-led football team could run with the big dogs were silenced on a memorable October night last season at Mel Ingram Field.

Before a standing-room only crowd, Musser's Grants Pass Cavemen did what no team had done during an eight-year, 57-game stretch: beat the Sheldon Irish in a conference game.

Nevermind that the contest required three overtimes for Grants Pass to squeeze out a 42-41 win.

"For me, personally, to get a win like that in my first year as a head coach, it was huge," Musser says.

Musser had been a longtime assistant to Tom Blanchard, a legendary quarterback at Grants Pass in the 1960s who successfully coached the Cavemen for 18 seasons.

"I think I may have put some people in this town at ease, that maybe I wasn't Tom Blanchard's puppet, that maybe I could coach a little myself," says Musser, whose team had suffered a 28-7 loss to eventual Southwest Conference champion South Medford the previous week.

The victory over Sheldon served as a springboard to the back half of the 2008 campaign as Grants Pass won five straight before falling to eventual Class 6A state champion Jesuit.

Musser's first-year report card: nine wins, two losses and a 5-0 mark at home.

"We were a very confident team the second half of last season. We felt like we could hang with anyone," Musser says. "And the kids carried that optimism into the offseason."

Grants Pass must rebuild its entire offensive line, but a brawny, athletic and experienced set of skill position players once again has the Josephine County contingent thinking big.

Leading the way is senior quarterback Jordy Romick, a spread-option specialist who split time the first half of last season but ravaged Sheldon with more than 200 yards rushing. He finished 2008 with more than 800 yards rushing, ranking third in the SWC, and roughly the same total passing.

"He's a great athlete that you must account for running and passing the ball," Musser says. "He's ready for a really big season."

While the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Romick might not scare you with his physique, his skill position teammates look more like college weight lifters.

There is 6-0, 190-pound senior slotback Brock Dean, who led the Cavemen in receptions and receiving yards and was second in touchdowns a year ago while earning second-team all-conference honors. The wideouts include 6-4, 215-pound Ronnie Fields and 6-1, 185-pound Jonz Olander.

Toss in the most heavily recruited Caveman, 6-2, 215-pound tight end John Tardieu, and GP isn't likely to lose many jump balls or get out-muscled on the flanks this fall.

Tardieu, the Southwest Conference's co-defensive player of the year in 2008, is being recruited by Oregon State, Boise State and Eastern Washington and has been offered a scholarship by Portland State, Musser says.

"We really do have a huge receiving corps," the coach says. "And these big boys can run.

"I would put our skill kids against any group in the league."

The challenge will be to give Romick and Co. enough time and space to operate, but Musser believes GP's inexperienced offensive line can be serviceable. For one thing, Tardieu, and occasionally Fields, who was an honorable-mention all-conference tight end last season, can serve as bookends to the interior linemen and provide outside running lanes.

And Musser thinks the inside players, led by center Aaron Shine and tackles Dylan Cervantes and Marcus Cox, will come around sooner rather than later.

Defensively, the question mark is at cornerback, where inexperience reigns. Tardieu figures to dominate at inside linebacker, Cervantes returns as an honorable-mention all-conference defensive end, Dean is back as a first-team all-conference strong safety and cat-quick Danny Burns is expected to create considerable havoc at nose guard.

"He's not that big for that position," Musser says of the 6-0, 185-pound Burns, "but he's faster than blazes."

Musser is also high on GP's two outside linebackers, Olander and Beau Beaumont, and he's convinced that junior Eric Patterson, the team's backup quarterback, can emerge at one of the corners on defense.

"If our offensive line jells and we find one more cornerback then I think we'll be right in the thick of things," Musser says.

After a fairly formidable preseason that includes games against Class 5A power Sherwood and 6A heavyweight Tualatin, Grants Pass jumps from the frying pan into the Southwest Conference fire with tilts against South Medford and Sheldon, who have won the past two SWC titles.

But don't expect the Cavemen to flinch. These days, they're comfortable running with the big dogs.

Don Hunt is a freelance writer who lives in Meridian, Idaho. Reach him at dwhunt15@yahoo.com