CENTRAL POINT — Last season was supposed to bring a huge step in the football path of Crater linebacker Garrett Alner. Instead, Alner's junior campaign involved a series of small steps no one ever wants to take.

CENTRAL POINT — Last season was supposed to bring a huge step in the football path of Crater linebacker Garrett Alner. Instead, Alner's junior campaign involved a series of small steps no one ever wants to take.

As the Comets' leading tackler during his sophomore year, Alner was well on his way to duplicating that feat in 2010 before being lost for the season in Week 2 due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

One year and countless hours of rehabilitation later, no one is more excited to get this football season started than Alner, who has long since been cleared for a return to duty.

"It feels awesome to be out there again," says the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder. "When you go through something like that where you lose your entire season, you don't take things for granted anymore when you get back. You kinda want to make the most of it for however long you can."

Alner's lost season was unfortunately a common theme in the Comet camp last year, with key players missing a handful of games due to injury or trying to match up despite their lessened condition. The result was a season that began with a pair of promising wins but gradually lost steam with eight straight losses to end Crater's debut season at the Class 6A level.

If anything, Alner says, the Comets want to show the rest of the state that such a swoon is uncharacteristic of a school that won at least a share of three of the four Southern Sky Conference titles during their four-year 5A run.

"Especially after last year, I'd love to earn the respect back in the state and I think our whole team is looking to do that," says Alner. "No one's expecting much from us but we're going to go out and surprise some people."

If they're going to accomplish that goal, the Comets likely will have to lean on a defense that returns eight starters, led by Alner at inside linebacker.

"He's a really good ballplayer," Crater head coach John Beck says of Alner, who's also his stepson. "If he stays healthy, that's really going to help us."

Alner headlines a linebacker corps that returns fellow seniors Chance Fahndrich, Nate Heard and Derrick Turituri. All four have the speed and athleticism to cover from sideline to sideline and will be counted on to help lessen the pressure on an entirely new defensive line.

"Defensively we're pretty solid out there," says Alner. "We have new linemen up front but they have good motors and are looking to make a name for themselves."

The secondary is also well stocked with talent thanks to the return of starters Cole Berriochoa, Wyatt Williams, Corey Wynant and R.J. Morgan. That group has shown a knack for getting to the ball and willingness to come up and support the run defense. Berriochoa scored special teams touchdowns in Crater's first two games last year and added an interception return for a TD in Week 2 before a strained medial collateral ligament slowed his progress the rest of the season.

Even with a host of injuries, the Comets finished in the middle of the pack in terms of team defense last year (316 yards per game) and is in line to lower that number with another year of experience under their belt.

Offensively, the biggest question mark involves the replacement at quarterback for Tyler Turituri, who was a running and passing threat during his tenure despite a torn muscle in his hip flexor. The signal caller's issues opened the door for some game experience by underclassmen Matt "Moose" Cooper and Chase Mackey, with varying degrees of success. Neither was able to air it out much but both had some success on the ground, with Mackey running for 170 yards and one TD — a 71-yarder — and throwing for another score in a play-in game loss to Southridge.

As a senior, Cooper has more experience in Beck's system but the junior Mackey is an outstanding athlete who was a key cog on Crater's standout 400-meter relay team last spring.

"They've both got good game experience and had a really good summer throwing the ball," says Beck. "It could take us up until Thursday (to determine a starter). I've never had a quarterback battle this tight. It's usually just one guy that separates himself but daily it goes back and forth between those two, and that's a good problem to have."

Whoever gets the nod will have a bevy of weapons at their disposal. Wynant ran for more than 100 yards and led the team with 242 receiving yards on 20 catches during the regular season, while Berriochoa averaged a whopping 25.6 yards per reception and Dan Wood is off the same sprint relay with Mackey and Derrick Turituri.

Poised for a breakout campaign is junior running back Ty Wolfe (5-11, 192), who averaged 9 yards per carry in limited duty last season.

"He's got really good speed and is physical with good playmaking abilities," says Beck. "I really think our skill guys overall are as good as anybody in the Rogue Valley. I really like our speed element vertically this year compared to last year."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry