The more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to the Southwest Conference football chase.
The run of Johnson brothers at the helm for Sheldon — Marty and then Lane — came to an end after last season when Lane Johnson stepped down as head coach, but the Irish’s status as the team to beat in the SWC remains the same.
In preseason voting by the conference’s coaches, Sheldon’s four first-place votes were just enough to put it over the top in a close competition with defending SWC champion South Medford. The Irish totaled 34 points, while South Medford earned three first-place votes and finished with 33 points.
Grants Pass was picked to place third with 26 points, followed by North Medford (20), Roseburg (15), Willamette (13) and South Eugene (6) in a race that expects to be fairly muddled in the middle.
All of that is well and good for first-year Sheldon head coach Josh Line, who comes over from Marshfield after four years as head coach and 10 previous as defensive coordinator, but it doesn’t mean anything if the Irish don’t keep their eye on the ball.
“We’re like everybody else, we’re one step at a time,” said Line, who played fullback at Oregon from 1999-2001. “But we also want to be as good as we can be and be as competitive as we can in the conference to give us our best opportunity in the playoffs.”
Line employed a similar spread-option offense at Marshfield as Sheldon has used to tremendous success and, after being able to retain most of the Irish’s assistant coaches, his plan is to keep things status quo — including adopting Sheldon’s terminology over imposing the wordings used at Marshfield.
“We wouldn’t be where we are at this point had we not been able to retain so many coaches,” said Line, “so I’m really appreciative of them for sticking with it and working as hard as we all have to make this transition as seamless as possible.”
Also making it easier is a host of quality returners combined with an influx of new talent courtesy of offspring from Oregon’s new coaching staff. Included are Michael Johnson Jr., a 6-foot-3, 190-pound dual-threat quarterback who is ranked among the best in the nation for the Class of 2019, and 6-1, 185-pound junior Raymond Woodie III, who is not far off the pace of his cohort as a dual-threat QB but will play slot receiver and free safety at Sheldon.
Throw in returning receiver Patrick Herbert, who is the younger brother of Oregon QB Justin Herbert and a heralded Class of 2019 tight end recruit, and standout linebacker/running back Jaren Banks, and the Irish have more than enough stars to challenge for an SWC crown.
Senior guards Matt Metcalf and Donovan Scurlock, place-kicker Campbell Sheidow and cornerback Ben Watson also return as all-SWC honorees, along with junior cornerback Kimani Quade.
Juniors Zach Folsom and Matthew Burgess will join Banks in the backfield, with senior Cameron Johnson slated to join Herbert at receiver and at defensive end and senior Zach Phillipo helping control things at center.
Marty Johnson won three state titles in 14 seasons and Lane Johnson won one state title in his six years as head coach. Under their guidance, Sheldon ranks first among the 37 schools who have competed at the Class 6A level since it started in 2006 with a 123-18 record in 11 seasons.
Last year, new head coach Dave Heuberger found his team in survival mode with limited numbers to start and mounting injuries during Roseburg’s first season without Thurman Bell on the sidelines in nearly five decades.
Heuberger said he and his staff took a lot of lessons from last year’s ups and downs and the hope is Roseburg will be the better for it in 2017.
Senior offensive lineman Tyler Sconce (6-6, 330) and junior linebacker Zack Mandera (6-1, 205) each earned all-SWC recognition a year ago, while versatile senior Terrell Jacks will be called upon to be a leader on both sides of the ball at tailback and linebacker.
Receivers Garrett Russell, Brendan Ibarra and Brandon Jeffers add to the targets for returning junior quarterback Collin Warmouth. Junior Thomas Ruth (6-1, 230) stands to make an impact on the offensive line.
Defensively, linebackers Mandera, Jacks and Jeffers anchor the effort with Russell moving to safety, while sophomores Doran Gillespie and Spencer Six add extra speed and flexibility at linebacker.
Eight returning starters on each side of the ball make Willamette a dangerous team to contend with under third-year head coach Josh Wolfram, especially given how hungry the Wolverines are to distance themselves from a one-win campaign a year ago after they had showed so much promise in 2015.
Third-year starting quarterback Taylor Bridge-Eiler (6-3, 200) will look to lead his team to a big turnaround after passing for 1,239 yards last year with 13 TDs and 12 interceptions. Bryce Goggin returns after finishing third in SWC receiving last year (657 yards and eight TDs on 33 receptions) along with prime targets Tanner Branson and Griffin LaVassaur.
Junior running back Tanner Webb (5-11, 185) returns and expects to get backfield help from sophomore Tanner Adams (6-0, 180), with returning linemen Jake Muller, Brad Mondo and Aaron Coughran carving out space to roam.
Defensively, linebacker Kalvyn Young sets the tone with Santi Soriano, who moves from linebacker to the line to help complement Muller.
The ability to execute in key stretches proved costly last year for Willamette, which will look to erase that issue, and overall depth is a concern.
Head coach Kevin Leonard has faced an uphill battle since taking over at South Eugene in 2014 but never more than this year, when the Axemen have only 35 players in the program and will not be able to field a junior varsity or freshman team.
With last year’s top two-way playmaker Myles Green-Richards — a Washington State commit — now playing for Churchill, the Axemen will look for a committee approach to propel them this season.
Returning all-SWC second-teamers Oskar Mertz (running back) and Elliot James (receiver) will be looked at to lead the charge, with Mertz sixth in SWC rushing last year (491 yards on 117 carries, six TDs) and James seventh in receiving (367 yards on 29 catches, three TDs).
Isaac Reyna will be a prime target in the slot for whoever wins the quarterback battle between junior Noah Hardy and sophomore Bryce Boettcher.
A pair of 6-3, 300-pounders in Jahi Richardson and Jibandi Lurowo will power the line play.
— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry