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Ashland boasts plenty of firepower

ASHLAND — The Ashland Grizzlies will field the most dynamic collection of athletes they’ve had in years, with speed and agility galore.

On defense, they’ll try to capitalize on all that athleticism by switching from their usual 4-3 base to A more blitz-heavy 3-4.

And on offense, the big question for the Grizzlies — who have made the Class 5A quarterfinals two straight years — is one that usually is off the table at this time of year in Ashland: Who will be responsible for distributing the ball to all that talent?

Senior Kyle Weinberg started at quarterback last season and didn’t hurt his case to retain the job during the Pacific Rim Bowl four weeks ago, completing 20 of 27 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns in Ashland’s 31-23 win over the Japan all-stars. But upstart Tucker Atteberry, a junior, also proved in limited action that he, too, could handle the job, completing 8 of 12 passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns.

“I can’t say that we’re set (at quarterback) — I’m going to be honest with you,” head coach Charlie Hall said. “They both look good, they both did some good things (in the PRB). I think we’ll figure it out during the preseason. I don’t like to go to a two-quarterback situation. We had that a couple years ago and I don’t think that’s always the best way to go.

“That’s going to be interesting. I think the competition’s going to be healthy for those guys. But we need to get the ball to people. We’ve got a lot of guys that can make some plays so it’s (the quarterback’s) responsibility in this offense to make that happen.”

The player that wins the starting QB job will indeed have plenty of options at his disposal, including one of the most explosive wide receivers in the state in senior Shashi Penn, two other returning receivers in Walker Shibley and Nicky Weinberg and a potentially devastating thunder-and-lightning running back combination in Mason Dow and Michael Pruitt.

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Penn is the headliner, a designation he certainly lived up to while catching 10 passes for 173 yards and a score during the PRB. Blessed with tremendous quickness, soft hands and great open-field elusiveness, Penn had 32 catches for 768 yards last season for an eye-popping 24 yards per catch.

Penn and Nicky Weinberg (31 catches, 323 yards) ranked second and third, respectively, in receptions last season for the Grizzlies and will team up with Shibley and the roving Pruitt to give the Grizzlies a potentially lethal aerial attack.

Mason Dow will be the starting running back, and several tight ends are also in the mix, but if the game against Japan is any indication, the strength of the team is its ability to move the ball through the air. Against Japan, the Grizzlies passed for 401 yards and rushed for 52.

“Those (receivers) are really solid, returning, excellent all-conference-caliber guys that know the offense, that know how to play in big games,” Hall said. “They all made nice catches in the Pacific Rim Bowl. I was really impressed in that early juncture of the season, which means that we did a lot of good stuff in the summer passing leagues. They made some good catches under pressure, so for them to do it with their pads on under the lights in a game of that magnitude was really good to see.”

Of course, much of Ashland’s passing game will depend on the success of a revamped offensive line, which held up during the PRB but has yet to endure the rigors of a nine-week regular season schedule.

None of the five starters up front started more than two games last season, and center Nick Sanderson (5-11, 225) is back after sitting out the 2014 season.

The good news, says Hall, is that they have good size and a leader in left guard Collin McGuire (6-0, 265), a senior, who started there during Ashland’s semifinal playoff run two years ago.

Also starting on the O-line for Ashland will be left tackle Wyatt Ireland (6-0, 200), right guard Bryce Augustson (6-2, 220), a transfer from Crater who grew up in Ashland, and right tackle Kyle Rodden (6-0, 200).

“So it’s a different kind of line,” Hall said. “We won’t be as quick, but hopefully we can show a little more muscle and we can have some girth and we can do some things with that.”

Most of Ashland’s skill position strengths should also pay dividends on the defensive side of the ball, where safeties Atteberry, Dow and Nicky Weinberg will team up with cornerbacks Shibley, Penn and Malik Pippa to give the Grizzlies enough coverage skills to handle just about any receiving corps they’ll come up against. Shibley had three interceptions and Dow two last season.

Shibley’s also an all-state punter.

McGuire, a nose guard, and Pruitt (6-0, 200), an end, return to the defensive line after standout 2014 seasons. McGuire led the Grizzlies with 5½ sacks and ranked second with 11 tackles-for-a-loss, while Pruitt, whose size and speed combination makes him a difficult matchup, had five sacks and 6½ tackles-for-a-loss.

Senior Karter Cox, who was Ashland’s second-leading tackler last season, returns to a linebacker crew that will also include Justin Robinson, Collin Timmons, Haydon Layton and Bendon Joss-Bentley. Robinson and Joss-Bentley both missed the 2014 season with injuries and are back for their senior seasons.

Overall, Hall loves his team’s potential but says Springfield is the clear favorite to win what would be its second straight Midwestern League title. Ashland placed third in the Midwestern in 2014 before losing to Silverton in the state quarterfinals.

“I just hope we play to our potential week in and week out,” Hall said. “I hope we can get back to where we’ve been in terms of that. Every year we want to be in the conversation, we want to compete for some state championships. We have some elements that can be there if we can just be consistent.”