A high turnover rate means lot of opportunities this fall on the Elko football team.
The Indians lost a lot of starters, including their entire offensive line, and will look to rebuild as they make a push to qualify for the playoffs for a fourth time in five years.
“The progression (of the program) is going in the right direction,” said Tribe coach Luke Sellers, who enters his fifth season at the helm of the program.
The Indians went 8-1 in the regular season and earned a home playoff game in the state quarterfinals. They had high expectations of advancing, but those hopes were dashed when Lowry left Warrior Field with a 34-15 victory.
The expectations for 2014 might rest, in large portion, on one particular unit of the team.
“Our whole offensive line graduated and that’ll be the rub. How fast do they want to get up to speed is the question,” Sellers said.
Daniel Groff started a few games at offensive line last year and is the most experienced lineman back. Hunter Smith, a backup last year, and two junior varsity starters, Ezra Jones and Kenyon Terry, could earn jobs along the line. Sellers said Jones and Terry could have been varsity players last year, but they received a lot more playing time on JV and are ready to make an impact this season.
Junior Branden Holt, who played running back on JV, could earn a starting spot on the offensive line. Landon Green, another junior, should also earn playing time. Jose Gonzales and Cade Moss are also in the mix.
“These juniors will figure out pretty quickly that they need to know their assignments,” Sellers said. “It’s a big jump (from JV to varsity). Offensive line wise we’ve got good numbers, but we’ve got to figure out the right combination to figure out who is where.”
Behind the offensive line, the Indians have a tough decision to make at quarterback. Jacob Conklin, a senior, and Alex Puentes, a junior, are expected to battle for time and push each other all season.
Conklin has never lost a game as a starting quarterback for Elko. He led the freshmen in 2011 and JV team in 2012 to undefeated seasons, but last year, he sat behind senior Connor Altenburg.
Puentes has shown a lot of potential in the feeder programs, and Sellers might just give both of them snaps during games.
“Both have different attributes they bring,” the coach said. “Alex can be more of an elusive runner, and Jacob is very competitive.”
At running back, Jason Wilson is back after rushing for 1,079 yards last year. The senior has 1,591 career rushing yards for the Indians, which puts him within range of the program’s all-time record of 2,480 set by Dave Cobb in 1974.
The elusive runner shared the backfield with David Jackson last year, but Jackson graduated along with his 2,244 career rushing yards.
“With Wilson, we’ll try to get more creative,” Sellers said. “We’ll move him around to two or three different spots and try to get him the ball in two or three different ways to take advantage of his abilities.”
Finding another hard-nosed runner to replace Jackson is another tall task for the coaching staff.
“It’s hard to replace a three-year starter,” Sellers said. “We’ll have Wilson and the other back might be by committee.”
Among that committee is a lot of experienced players at other positions, but most saw limited time at running back last year. After Wilson, the top returning ball carriers are Jordan Walthers, Benton Wickersham and LA Jones. The trio ran for 181 yards last year. They will be joined by Cody Nielsen, Jake Pengelly and Devin Kelly. Pengelly is a transfer from Carlin who led the Railroaders in rushing last year.
Sellers said he believes the group collectively can make up for the loss of Jackson.
At wide receiver, Sellers said all of the running backs can catch the ball and could line up at receiver. The team also has Nathan Klekas and Adam Bullock back. Klekas is the most experienced receiver returning. He had 12 catches for 277 yards and four touchdowns last year.
Sellers hopes to implement more of a passing game this season. The Indians ran the ball on 80 percent of plays in 2013.
Jacob Stevens, R.J. Bejarano and Nick Smiley are also possible targets in the passing game.
Klekas will also line up once again at tight end, while Smiley, Wickersham and Walthers could also see time at the spot.
“It’s nice to have 60 kids, but how many want to participate right off the get go?” Sellers said. “It creates more competition, which is good for the team to have kids behind you, pushing you.”
On the flip, Elko’s defense last year held seven of its 10 opponents to under 20 points and five to under 10. It fits with Sellers’ philosophy of putting his best 11 players on defense.
However, the veteran coach is not afraid to hire and fire new defensive players when mistakes are made and learning needs to take place on the sideline.
Bullock, Jones and Groff are experienced defensive linemen, but Sellers said he might move Bullock around more this year. The senior led the team with 9.5 sacks last year, which was almost half of the team’s total collectively. Wickersham, Klekas, Pengelly or Kelly might take time at defensive end.
“Each week things will probably change,” Sellers said of his defense. “Having 60 guys allows us some flexibility. We’ve got some really good kids on the defensive line, but no one that you’ll say is a starter. It might be four games into the season before we know who wants to do it on every down.”
Walthers and Nielsen were monsters at the linebacker position last year. Walthers led the team with 99 tackles, while Nielsen was third with 64. Wickersham, who was second on the team last year with 73 while playing in the secondary, will likely move up on defense. The junior will play either outside linebacker or defensive end. Kelly and Pengelly are options at outside linebacker as well.
Eric VanKirk and Seth Morfin return to the secondary, while Dustin Baum, Weston Warrick, Bejarano and Stevens try to earn time at those spots as well.
Wickersham is a returning punter, while Smiley and Cortney Glenn could vie for the kicking duties.
Sellers expects a dog fight from every team in Northern I-A. He said Fallon will reload from its JV program, which did well last year, and Truckee will be much better after a down season. Lowry is consistently among the top teams in the league, while he expects Wooster and Spring Creek to be improved as well.
“Through and through, you have to compete every week,” Sellers said. “Each week we’ve got to get better.”
As has been the custom of late, the Indians will start the season with their bye week before opening league play Sept. 5 at Wooster. Their first home game is Sept. 12 against Sparks.