GRANTS PASS — Having endured a stretch of seasons where the wheels seemingly spun in place for his football team, Grants Pass head coach John Musser spent the offseason trying to determine what was holding the Cavemen back.

GRANTS PASS — Having endured a stretch of seasons where the wheels seemingly spun in place for his football team, Grants Pass head coach John Musser spent the offseason trying to determine what was holding the Cavemen back.

The result is a change in attitude and scheme this season in Grants Pass, with Musser and company adopting a more fast-paced spread offense to hopefully take some pressure off a typically stout — but often overworked — defense.

"After looking at it we felt our offensive tempo was too slow," says Musser. "We've been very much a ground-and-pound team and when we had (Craig) Dolmage and (Criss) Bowen, it was a good scheme. But when you don't have those kind of kids, it's a lot more pound and a lot less ground."

It's not like Grants Pass hasn't been close to making its mark in the Southwest Conference in recent seasons, Musser is just hoping to find that little something that will help put the Cavemen over the top. GP posted a 2-8 record last year, but five of those losses were by a touchdown or less.

"We've played a lot of close games, we've just got to figure out a way to win them in the end," he says, "and I think experience goes a long way in that."

Providing the experience will be a defense that returns nine of the 11 starters, including defensive captain Chad Lowe, who returns at inside linebacker with Steven Etheridge. Lowe is 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds, while Etheridge is 6-0 and 207.

"Chad Lowe could have a very good year," says Musser. "He's a heck of a linebacker."

Senior cornerback Lawrence Potts was a second-team all-conference selection last season and helps anchor a secondary that returns in full force with free safety Anthony Mattie, strong safety Kolton Mahr and cornerback Riley Veritch.

Defensive ends Nathan Whisenhunt and Dustin Randall also return, with nose guard Patrick Powell (5-11, 241) expected to clog the middle for a GP defense that aims to vastly improve last year's 341 yards and 30 points allowed per game.

"The goal of these guys is to earn one of those top four spots (in the Southwest Conference) and to not be playing a play-in game," says Musser, whose defense finished strong after switching back to a 3-4 alignment midway through the season.

The Cavemen hope to build off a late-season surge that saw them beat Crater 49-7 and South Eugene 26-12 before falling short to Grant, 13-7, in the Class 6A play-in round.

"These kids have had some ins and outs," says Musser. "We're hoping it's just a matter of picking up where we left off at the end of the year."

The other hope is that adopting a quick-to-the-line system that involves signals from the sidelines — as many schools are trending toward in Oregon — will give the offense the kick-start it needs.

"I think this group has the chance to be successful with it based on getting our athletes in space and their conditioning," says Musser, whose team was picked sixth in a preseason SWC coaches poll. "But that's the big question mark because it's uncharted territory for us."

Quarterback Hunter Rich returns after a sophomore campaign that saw him complete 51 of 103 passes for 691 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Musser says Rich has shown tremendous growth at the position in the offseason and is excited about what the athletic junior has to offer.

"As a sophomore he had some high points and low points but he's a kid that has tremendous calm under pressure," says Musser. "Last year we really had to spoon feed some things offensively but we've been able to open things up more this year and we're doing a lot more from the line of scrimmage."

Besides going more up-tempo, Musser says GP has changed its zone running scheme to better take advantage of the abilities of senior tailback Logan Dean, who is a solid 5-7, 180 pounds and ran on the school's standout 400-meter relay squad.

"He's a real downhill runner and this opens it up for him a little," says Musser.

Alex Albright, last year's team leader in rushing and the No. 5 runner in the SWC, returns but will move to an H-back role. Albright carried 120 times for 626 yards and four scores a year ago.

Both will run behind an offensive line that averages 229 pounds and is athletic and well-versed in GP's blocking scheme.

Potts averaged 14 yards per catch last season and is GP's top returning threat at receiver, with Veritch providing a complement on the other side and Mahr using his 6-3 frame to give the team a solid possession receiver.

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