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North puts its hopes on line

North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell admits there is some “retooling” going on as his team prepares for the 2016 campaign, but the cupboard is far from bare.

In fact, if the old adage that games are won in the trenches is true, the Black Tornado has a leg up on many this season thanks to a wealth of returners on the line.

“That should be the strength of our team overall,” said Mitchell. “We do have some size and they’ve worked hard in the offseason. We’ve just got to shuffle them around and get them all lined up in the right places now.”

A great place to start will be with senior road graders Tre Holmes (6-foot, 285 pounds), A.J. Raye (6-4, 200), Michael Rucker (5-11, 215) and Danny Ibarra (6-2, 295).

Holmes was a first-team all-Southwest Conference defensive tackle and honorable mention offensive guard, while Raye was a second-team defensive end and honorable mention offensive tackle who will return to the tight end role he had in 2014. Rucker returns at center, while Ibarra returns on the defensive line.

Complementing that group will be returning defensive end Nicholas Winetrout and offensive tackle Jonathinn Casaday as the Black Tornado looks to control the trenches.

Mitchell and company are especially excited about the return of senior linebacker Praise Viliamu, who was a first-team all-SWC selection one year ago and has the capability of being a dominant defender.

“I think Praise is going to be one of the best linebackers in the state,” said Mitchell. “He’s 225 (pounds) now and runs well. He’s a load when he’s back there at tailback. We’re real excited about him. He’s been working hard and he really wants it.”

Viliamu also expects to be part of a backfield built on more north-south running this season, with senior Alex Janakes — younger brother of North’s leading rusher in 2013 and ‘14 (Nick Janakes) — and junior Harley Robinson helping fill the tailback role behind senior fullback Justin Geyer.

Returning receiver/safety Mason Barone fractured his thumb over the summer but still expects to be in full gear once the SWC slate begins. Barone is the only returning skill player with notable numbers from last year after he hauled in 21 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns and was a threat to go the distance on special teams.

Senior Joey Hunter provides a nice complement on the perimeter, with juniors Josh Robbins and Javan Gail battling it out for the quarterback spot. Robbins and Gail shared duties at the JV level last year and Mitchell likes the passing accuracy of each, with Robbins having an edge as the more dangerous running threat.

The running game, specifically toward the goal line, has been a definite focal point heading into this season. Mitchell said his team didn’t score on 17 occasions inside the 4-yard line last year and that simply isn’t acceptable.

“That on Day 1 was our walk-through topic, goal-line offense,” said Mitchell. “We’re going to be 100 percent when we’re inside the 10.”

Mitchell is also excited about the prospects at cornerback and receiver in junior Vicente Borja and senior Devin Shook, as well as the potential of junior linebacker/fullback Isaac Manuel and sophomore linebacker/tight end Elias Spence, who is the younger brother of last year’s SWC-leading rusher Will Spence.

“I feel this is one of those teams that could come from nowhere,” said Mitchell. “It’s one of those deals right now you don’t want to say too much but I feel good about this team right now with how they’re working and the potential I see. It’s just got to all come together.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

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Mitchell
North Medford junior quarterback Javan Gail works under center during a recent jamboree at Spiegelberg Stadium. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.