As he prepped for the 2017 football season, North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell’s initial thoughts went to how inexperienced the Black Tornado would be this time around.
Then he crunched the numbers, and some of those concerns went by the wayside.
While North Medford doesn’t have a host of three-year returning starters as has helped fill the roster in years past, the squad does boast six returning starters on offense and five on defense to give hope to another top-four finish in the Southwest Conference.
“We’re talented but we don’t have a (Nick) Janakes or a (Tre) Holmes, so hard work is what these guys are going to have to do,” said Mitchell, “but they’ve got a great attitude and they’re fun to coach and we could have something here.”
“We’ll be in the thick of it by the end,” he added. “It might take us a while to get there, but I think we’ll get there.”
While North Medford’s strength has ultimately been in the trenches in recent years, the Black Tornado will be spurred by a host of skill players this year, led by senior two-way starters Tyler Evans, Vicente Borja, Harley Robinson and Isaac Manuel and junior Eli Spence.
“I think we have some good skill people, we just need to step up and develop on the line and play good defense this year to give us a chance,” said Mitchell.
Evans was a second-team all-SWC receiver last year after finishing fourth in the league with 519 yards receiving and five touchdowns on 35 receptions during the regular season. The 5-foot-8, 155-pounder showed sure hands and good separation and will be tasked with helping his team move the chains once again this year.
Borja (5-8, 155) also started last year and averaged 19.6 yards per catch as a big-play threat, while Robinson split carries in the backfield and finished with 260 yards rushing on 85 carries, thanks to his quick feet.
“Harley in space is good offense,” said Mitchell.
Manuel made most of his impact at linebacker one year ago but will add some running back duties to his resume this time around, and at 5-9 and 200 pounds, he gives North a physical presence in the backfield with deceptive speed.
Spence has a chance to be North Medford’s breakout performer of the year on both sides of the ball, with the 6-5, 200-pounder expanding his duties from last year at linebacker with more available time at receiver.
Spence expects to fulfill the role departed senior A.J. Raye played last year as the Black Tornado’s reliable mid-range target, albeit more from the slot than at tight end.
Senior Josh Robbins (6-0, 190) again assumes control of the North Medford offense at quarterback after splitting time last year with Javan Gail, who has transferred to Phoenix High to play for his father, Jered.
The combination of the two provided a blend of electric and erratic moments one year ago, with Gail taking over for good after Robbins suffered a broken right ankle in Week 7 at Grants Pass.
“We thought Jav was a good kid, I don’t want to slight him at all,” said Mitchell, “but this probably in the long run is going to be better for us just because those two were so close it really was hard to pick who’s the biggest asset. I like having one, I don’t like having two quarterbacks.”
Robbins completed 46 of 98 passes for 585 yards, five TDs and four interceptions last year and has proven to be a strong running threat in past years.
“I feel good about him being our quarterback,” Mitchell said of Robbins, who also wrestles and plays baseball. “He’s a big, strong runner and he stands in the pocket a little better now and he makes good choices. We’re excited about him and think he’s going to have a good year.”
To help further Robbins’ development, Mitchell said North has made a decision to get the starters more practice reps this year, and he has already seen a payoff from that switch.
Returning senior guard Zach Fung and senior tackle Jonathinn Casaday earned all-SWC honors last year and will lead the push on the offensive line to give Robbins and company time to operate.
Senior Nicholas Winetrout has been a consistent contributor at defensive end since his sophomore year and will help power a Tornado stop unit anchored by linebackers Manuel and Spence and newcomers Dallin England and Thomas Bates.
Robinson takes over at free safety with Evans moving to rover, while Borja returns at cornerback and will be flanked by junior Anthony Taylor.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry