PHOENIX — Dalton Richardson and Steven Sharbono will be a force in the trenches for the Phoenix Pirates this season.

PHOENIX — Dalton Richardson and Steven Sharbono will be a force in the trenches for the Phoenix Pirates this season.

The bookend defensive tackles — who also start on the offensive line — provide the Pirates with the size, experience and intensity that is coveted by any football coach.

What Phoenix will be searching for in 2011 are the skill position players and the maturation of a bunch of sophomores in order to take advantage of the talents of those prized senior linemen.

With only nine seniors and few juniors, third-year coach Toby Walker will be depending on that sophomore group to step up and contribute immediately.

Walker has guided Phoenix into the postseason his first two years, including a surprising run to the semifinals in 2009. But the 30-year-old former Southern Oregon University linebacker faces his biggest challenge this year.

"We're young on paper and even experience-wise," he says. "But our kids have high expectations. We want to be one of the top teams in the state every year."

Richardson, a returning first-team all-Skyline performer, has been playing next to Sharbono since the sixth grade. The pair has developed a bond and an intuitiveness that works well once the ball is snapped.

"I call (Sharbono) the toughest guy on the field because he's the nose tackle and usually draws a double team," says Richardson, a three-year starter. "He has a passion for the game. He can push the pile back. He's a mean guy."

Veteran line coach Stan Gida praises Richardson and Sharbono for their athleticism, speed and football knowledge. Also, Gida says, Richardson has embraced the role as a team leader.

"It's my job to help prepare these younger guys for varsity football," says Richardson. "I've been partnering up and teaching technique. I'm very optimistic. They get knocked down but get right back up."

Other top candidates to join the senior duo up front are senior Tyler Phillips, junior Tyler Carrillo and sophomores Travis Treadway and Walker Woodman.

Former offensive coordinator Doug Elam was a casualty to school budget cuts, so Walker takes over the primary play-calling duties, and Gida moves into Walker's old role of defensive coordinator.

Walker believes his defensive background will serve him well in spotting weaknesses in opponents' alignments. The Pirates will stay with the spread shotgun as their base attack.

Much of the responsibility for the Pirate offense will be in the hands of sophomores Andrew Reynoso (quarterback) and running backs David Forester and Aaron Pankowski.

"Reynoso's ability to run the ball will be huge for us," says Walker. "He's a kid that can make a lot of plays with his legs. Our passing game will be more of a short game with screens and sprint-outs."

Forester is considered the power back, while the 5-foot-7 Pankowski has speed and grit.

"We're going to be very patient and basic," says Walker. "We want to take advantage of time of possession."

Senior wide receivers Joey Keith and Luke Brown give the Pirates credible threats down field and should keep opposing defenses honest.

Defensively, Walker is confident in his front seven and Keith and Reynoso in the secondary.

"We'll bring five or six on the blitz and play man coverage," says Walker. "We'll use a lot of movement up front."

Brown, a big, physical player, is expected to be a major contributor as an outside linebacker. The 6-3, 200-pounder suffered a high-ankle sprain about midway through last season and missed the rest of the campaign.

"(Brown) is fearless," says Walker. "He comes downhill and is a great tackler."

Walker has been impressed with sophomore Ismael Rubio, who's being groomed as the middle linebacker. Rubio has demonstrated good football instincts. Forester and fellow sophomore Jose Deras will be used as outside linebackers.

"With this group, I don't know a whole lot what will happen on Friday nights," says Walker, "but they will compete week in and week out."

Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480 or email