DAYTON — The biggest question facing coach Rob Turner and the Dayton Dust Devils is a big one.
How do you replace Austin Fletcher’s 1,991 all-purpose yards, 18 touchdowns and 114 tackles? The answer is fairly simple. You don’t, at least with one guy.
“I don’t know how,” Turner admitted prior to Wednesday’s practice. “Kids like that don’t come around very often. He was a good kid and a good football player. We put a very big load on his shoulders. We’ll have to spread that load around a bit more. We have to spread the ball around and keep everybody fresh.”
The Dust Devils (4-6, 4-5 in league play last year) will need bigger production from running backs Skyler Berntson (167 yards rushing, 46 receiving, 3 TDs), Johnny Aguilar (81 yards) and fullback Quinn Santana (172 yards, 1 TD). Dylan Atkinson and Russ Alfano are the reserves at fullback. Neither had a varsity carry a year ago.
Turner also needs quarterback Davis Winebarger to better his output of 940 yards and 46 percent completion mark. Winebarger passed for nine scores, but had 13 interceptions. Not the kind of ratio Turner is looking for. The coach is looking for Berntson to have a breakout season after missing three games with an injury last year.
“He is so elusive,” Turner said. “The tailback is going to get more carries than the fullback in our system. The fullback in our system is an integral part of our blocking scheme. We use the fullback to run the dive and trap. At camp this summer, the trap was our best play. Hopefully we can keep that rolling.
“We’ve been working with our offensive line to give him more time to throw the ball. A lot of those interceptions were the result of too much pressure (and forcing the ball up). That was kind of a big deal. Coaches (Mike) Burrows and (Kay) Berntson have been working with him on his reads, and focusing on the hot receiver each passing play. They are doing more with check downs than we’ve done before.”
Shea Brewer, up from the JV squad, is Winebarger’s back-up.
Receiver Dallon Mendoza (9 catches, 143 yards, 1 TD) and wingback Julio Meza (14 catches, 382 yards, 5 TDs) will be Winebarger’s favorite targets. Tight end Jaret Reed caught six balls for 97 yards a year ago. Benji Ply will back up at wide receiver and wingback.
“Julio is a triple threat out there,” Turner said. “He has to block, run and catch the ball. He’s a strong, tough kid.”
Up front, Turner has four returners from last year — tackle Ian Hopper, center Brad Gillenwater and guards Jon Joiner and Jesus Castaneda. Jeremiah Sermeno and Adam Smith will battle for the vacant tackle position.
“Gillenwater is a good offensive lineman,” Turner said. “In our offense, we need the guards to pull a lot, and Jesus and Joiner are so quick they beat the running back to the point of attack. That’s why I don’t play them on the same side.”
For the third straight season, the Dust Devils employ a 3-5-3 defense, made famous by Rocky Long at the University of New Mexico. When a team employs this defense it usually means it has more linebacker types than anything else.
“It’s a blitzing defense,” Turner said. “We’ve made some adjustments. We’re trying to do little things better.”
One of those things is working with the linebackers on gap responsibility.
Castaneda will start at nose tackle flanked by Smith and Hopper.
Gillenwater, Joiner and Sermeno will play middle linebacker with Reed, Atkinson and Alex McJunkin battling for time at outside linebacker.
Berntson, Meza and Mendoza will play cornerback with the diminutive Aguilar at safety, all 130 pounds of him.
“Berntson is as good a shutdown corner as there is,” Turner said. “Johnny is fun to watch. He’s our run stopper. Nobody gets as low as he does.”
The other pressing issue at Dayton is numbers. The roster is between 28 and 30, which has been normal the past few years. The problem recently has been almost all the starters have to play both ways, and that extra duty almost always impacts the defense. Of 10 games, four times teams scored 40 or more on the Dust Devils.
“We got tired,” Turner said. “We have so many guys that play both ways.”
Though Turner feels his team is deeper this year than last, he also said the injury situation is critical. With many guys going both ways, losing one guy is like losing two starters.