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Cougars on the prowl for unprecedented success

CAVE JUNCTION — Try as he might, Ray Yarbrough has a hard time tempering his excitement when the conversation turns to his Illinois Valley football team.

The Cougars have little tradition on the gridiron — they’ve advanced to the state playoffs only three times and have just one postseason victory — but Yarbrough has steadfastly built the program, brick by brick, since taking the head coaching job in 2008. And now he sees a shiny, if slightly unfinished, product that could challenge defending Southern Cascade League and 3A state champion Cascade Christian for bragging rights.

“Potentially, this could be the best team I’ve had at IV,” said Yarbrough, whose Cougars won only one game in his first two seasons as coach but have steadied the ledger at 21-23 over the past four years. “We think we have more talent at the skill positions than we’ve ever had. If we can solve some question marks up front, we think we can compete with the best teams in the state.”

Kick-starting the Cougars are four-year starting quarterback C.J. Manning, who passed for 1,578 yards and 17 touchdowns and ran for 276 yards a year ago, and senior running back James Thompson, who piled up a school-record 2,052 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns to earn first-team all-state honors.

Manning attended Peyton Manning’s Denver-based summer camp — no, they’re not related — and returned to Cave Junction with enhanced accuracy and much-improved footwork, Yarbrough said. The notable improvements should allow the 6-foot, 185-pound Manning to cut down on his interceptions — he had 17 a year ago — and ramp up his completion percentage, which was a pedestrian 49.5 percent in 2013.

“We think his arm is as strong as anyone in the state and now that he’s got his footwork down, we’re excited to see what he can do,” Yarbrough said. “He was in the weight room all summer and would spend an hour afterwards throwing to his teammates.”

Manning is also an outstanding punter — he was first-team all-conference last season.

Thompson, meanwhile, uses a combination of power and speed to rack up yards between the tackles and on the perimeter. The 5-9, 195-pounder, who was the Southern Cascade’s offensive player of the year in 2013, worked with a speed trainer all spring and summer.

“He’s always been strong,” Yarbrough said, “but now he looks faster. I’ll be surprised if he gets caught from behind this season.”

Manning’s favorite targets figure to be senior slotback Logan Miller (29 receptions for 426 yards and six touchdowns a year ago) and junior wide receiver James Jarrett (9 receptions, 168 yards, three TDs). Both return as starters.

“Miller doesn’t have great speed but he’s got good hands and body control and he knows how to get open,” Yarbrough said. “He’s a Wes Welker-type of guy.”

Also penciled in at wideout in Illinois Valley’s four-receiver sets are sophomores Skyler McLanahan and Andrew Sherier and junior Jordan Rubenstein.

The concern for the Cougs is the offensive line, where senior tackle Nick Worley is the lone returning starter. However, IV got a big boost when senior Jacob Nelson, a seasoned offensive tackle and linebacker on defense, moved in from Wisconsin.

“He (Nelson) played really well at our summer camp, especially on defense,” Yarbrough said of the 5-10, 215-pound Nelson. “He was going sideline to sideline, looking to hit people.”

Sophomore center Jacob Soloman emerged as a solid contributor in the summer, narrowing IV’s unsettled, up-front area to the two guard spots. Sophomore Paul Binker, in just his second season playing football, has shown promise and has plenty of size at 6-5 and 365 pounds.

“We talked as a coaching staff all summer about developing an offensive line, and after watching the first few days (of practice) I think we’ll be OK,” Yarbrough said. “We think Worley and Nelson could be two of the best tackles in the league.”

Nelson already looks like the anchor of the defense and he’ll get ample help from outside linebackers/safeties Thompson and Miller and inside linebacker Jarrett. The secondary will feature McLanahan and Rubenstein at cornerback and Manning at free safety, while Worley will be counted on to lead an inexperience defensive front.

Yarbrough is also high on senior Hugo Ochoa, an offensive lineman and linebacker who hasn’t played since his freshman year but was turning heads in the early practice sessions.

“We’re pretty sure he’s going to be on the field somewhere,” the coach said.

The Cougars have a challenging pre-conference schedule, taking on 4A schools Douglas and Brookings-Harbor in their first two games. If they can solve the uncertainties in their offensive and defensive lines by their first league game, Oct. 17 at home against Cascade Christian, the Cougs could be on the prowl for unprecedented success.