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First line of attack sets tone for North Medford

North Medford offensive linemen David Fuiava, Jacob Johnson, Tharon Gail, Brett Rucker and Terrell Kim have helped pave the way for a potent Black Tornado offense . Photo by Denise Baratta

It all started with a 3-yard gain, then backwards for 2 yards.

Only one time out of 19 attempts was it more than 8 yards forward, but North Medford never flinched in trying to assert its will on a game Crater defense through the first half of last Friday’s clash.

At play was confidence in an offensive line that, admittedly still learning, has worked hard to play in unison and become a driving force behind the Black Tornado’s success.

“When it comes down to it, it’s up to us up front,” said two-year senior starter Tharon Gail. “Football is won at the line, and I like having that responsibility of having the team on our backs. I think that’s one of the coolest things about being an offensive lineman.”

Faith in that foundation paid off in a big way last week, and the expectation is that it will only grow with time as North Medford (2-1) prepares to play its first home game Friday against Roseburg (0-2) at Spiegelberg Stadium.

The Black Tornado amassed 164 rushing yards in the second half during that physical affair in Central Point, 220 overall on the ground, wearing down the Comets and controlling tempo to successfully pull off a 25-18 comeback victory.

“You hear the old adage that those 2- and 3-yard runs in the first half are going to turn into 5 and 7 in the second half,” said North Medford head coach Steve Turner, “and every once in a while you’re going to get a 30 for a touchdown. We just keep punching away at the body and after a while it takes its toll. A lot of coaches aren’t willing to do that.”

A lot of coaches aren’t Turner, who has made a career as a head coach out of starting with physical ground attacks and then sprinkling in big-play passing to confound opponents.

“It’s just the attitude we have as an offense that that’s what we do,” said Turner, “so we’re going to lean on it.”

It doesn’t hurt when you have an experienced running back like senior Devin Bradd, who ran for nearly 1,600 with 26 touchdowns a year ago and has the kind of powerful running style that fits well into the Tornado scheme.

Bradd carried 35 times for 181 yards and two touchdowns last week, and has totaled 479 yards and four scores on 84 carries thus far.

“It’s different than being a running back in a spread offense,” said Turner. “It’s a lot of downhill stuff. We want to take advantage of his power and the more he trusts his offensive line, the better he runs.”

Gail, at center, is the lone returning varsity regular and his presence has helped steady the ship as junior right guard Jacob Johnson, sophomore left tackle David Fuiava and freshman right tackle Terrell Kim join senior left guard Brett Rucker in continuing to get up to speed.

Rucker was a part-time starter in 2019 so his experience was felt early on, while Johnson made a case for being the top lineman for that season’s talented JV squad.

Fuiava also saw increased playing time once the playoffs rolled around in the last season and his physicality cannot be denied with his heavyweight wrestling background.

“It was kind of difficult transitioning to a lot of new guys early on,” admitted Gail, “but we’re getting into it and we’re getting better every day. We’ve just got to keep working and build every day.”

The group averages 261 pounds across the front line, with Kim standing as the biggest of them all at 6-foot-3 and 328 pounds at only 14 years of age.

While not utterly imposing across the front compared to some programs out there, Gail said the Tornado utilize more than bulk to get the job done.

“I’m feeling pretty confident with this group,” he said. “We’re pretty smart up front. We lack in size a little bit but being smart makes up for that in a lot of ways.”

All attest, though, that the first line of attack for North Medford continues to be a work in progress.

“We’re still young and we’re still learning,” said Turner, “it’s only been three games. We’re also fortunate that we don’t have to use those guys to play defense, although they could.”

With that group fresh and raring to go each possession, North Medford has averaged 373 yards and 27 points per game.

Turner gives a bulk of the credit to assistant coaches Jim Figoni and Johnny Vaigafa.

“I think coach Figoni and coach Vaigafa, the line coaches, coach a lot of the little things that help those guys out,” said Turner of the linemen. “Those two guys take tremendous pride in what they’re teaching and what they’re coaching, and hopefully it rubs off on the kids.”

“We’re not 100% or where we need to be,” he added, “but you take things a little at a time. I think the pride that their coaches have in them is tremendous and I think that rubs off on them.”

Gail agreed, noting that the group gets ramped up with all the faith put into their ability to push a defense backward.

“I like our chip on our shoulder when we do that,” he said. “I think it gets the tempo going a little bit and helps us more than it hurts us. I like running the ball and I like when we’re running it down people’s throats, and I think our whole team does, too.”

Two-year starting fullback Jayden Sandusky also provides an extension to that offensive line with his hard-charging efforts and glee in packing a punch at 6-2 and 221 pounds.

“In order to play this offense, you need to have a physical fullback, and Jayden is that guy,” said Turner of the senior. “Playing fullback in this offense is not an easy deal, and then to play full-time as a defensive lineman, that takes a lot. He’s in pretty dang good shape.”

“I don’t know if he’s really taking punishment as much because he’s looking to give it out,” added the coach, “but playing fullback you’ve got to block a lot. Pass block, run block and then you get the ball twice a game. That’s a little selfless, I imagine, to do all that.”

Against Roseburg, Turner said the main focus this week has been on the smaller details that have kept the Black Tornado from being at its best thus far.

And, although the Indians have been outscored 73-20 in their two games, Turner said there’s no room to overlook the challenge Roseburg will bring to Friday’s game.

“They’re a young team but they’re playing with their hair on fire,” said the coach. “The score is important to them and the outcome, but the chance to play seems to be more important to them. They look like they enjoy playing the game of football and they’re ready every play. They’re very well-coached in what they’re doing and you can see the kids executing what they have been coached to do.”

Roseburg quarterback Dominic Tatone connected with fellow junior Logan Klopfenstein for a 65-yard TD last week in a 45-6 loss to Grants Pass, which led 21-6 at halftime, and the Indians also got a four-catch, 68-yard effort from sophomore Eli Jacobs-Locker.

After having its Week 1 game canceled due to COVID protocols, Roseburg has averaged 148 yards in total offense and allowed 424 yards per game with a roster primarily filled with sophomores and juniors for head coach Dave Heuberger.

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

North Medford senior running back Devin Bradd peeks through a hole made by his blockers against Crater last Friday. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune