The Elko High School football team is coming off a successful 2014 campaign, in which the Tribe finished 9-2 and saw a return to the state semifinal, but lost 40-7 at Moapa Valley. The shoes to fill for 2015 are big and many.
“We aren’t a really young team as far as age, but we have a lot of juniors and seniors who have not seen the field a whole lot,” said Elko coach Luke Sellers. “When you had six guys who could go the distance on any given play, there were a lot of guys on the bench who did not get a bunch of playing time. The class of 2015 was a really talented group.”
A key departure is Jason Wilson, the Tribe’s all-time leader in rushing yards and total offense. Wilson broke the rushing mark in Elko’s 23-8 quarterfinal victory at home against Fernley, breaking the previous record of 2,480 yards on the ground, which was set by Dave Cobb in 1974. The new precedent is now 2,541 yards. Wilson was also second in career scoring — crossing the goal line 40 times — trailing only Kyle Eklund’s mark of 45 career scores.
The new-look Indians were depleted on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, and the special teams will also need to find players to step in and fill the large voids of Wilson and Eric Van Kirk, who were dangerous weapons at kick returner and punt returner, respectively. Van Kirk was a Northern Division I-A second-team return specialist.
On offense, senior Alex Puentes will assume the starting position at quarterback, after splitting time with graduated Jacob Conklin last season. Puentes and Conklin posted nearly-identical passing stats last season — each throwing for more than 700 yards and seven touchdowns. Conklin threw four interceptions on the season, while Puentes limited his picks to three. Puentes proved to be a dual-threat quarterback, using his legs often for big plays on the ground. He scored six rushing touchdowns.
Replacing Wilson in the backfield will be a tall task, but one senior Benton Wickersham is more than willing to take on. Last season — with Elko diminished along the offensive front — Wickersham, Cody Nielsen and Jordan Walthers move to the offensive line for the first times in their careers. The results were astoundingly positive, as Wickersham was named the lineman of the year for both the Northern DI-A and DI-A.
Nielsen and Walthers were named second-team All-State and first-team All-North selections, respectively, but both graduated in June.
The defense will also look like a new bunch.
Walthers and his team-leading 91 tackles (65 solo) will likely need to be replaced by committee. Walthers was a first-team All-State selection at linebacker. He also led the team with three forced fumbles. Bullock was second on the squad with 84 total tackles and 47 unassisted from his safety position, earning second-team All-State honors. Bullock tied Klekas for the team lead with three fumble recoveries. Bullock also tied for the team lead in interceptions with Van Kirk, each collecting three.
Wickersham, though, is the top returning tackler from a season ago, notching 80 total tackles with 52 solo stops. He also led the team with eight sacks. Wickersham recovered two fumbles on the season. Elko head coach Luke Sellers says he expects Wickersham to play at both linebacker and defensive end, depending on the formations of Elko’s opponents.
“Benton is so versatile. He can play so many different positions on offense and defense. You saw that last year, when he moved to the offensive line,” said Sellers. “Not only is he a great player, he is really smart. He just knows the game very well. You can plug him into many different spots and trust him to execute his responsibilities.”
Also returning to the defensive front, Jacob Pengelly, who notched 65 tackles with 41 unassisted and 2 1/2 sacks, despite not receiving an abundance of playing time through Elko’s first few contests.
Senior Dustin Baum will man one of the cornerback positions once again. Last year, Baum tallied 63 tackles and came away with two interceptions. Senior R.J. Bejarano returns to the secondary, picking off two passes last season.
“We have a lot to replace, but we have been telling the kids that this is their team. They can build their own legacy and identity,” said Sellers.
Fresh faces will appear across the board for the Indians.
Sellers expects Pengelly and Branden Holt to help Wickersham shoulder the load of Elko’s ground game, which will remain a staple of the Tribe’s offense, generally operating from the Wing-T formation and based around the sweep play.
Puentes is actually the team’s returning rusher from last year, toting the ball for 536 yards on 104 attempts.
The only returning offensive lineman is senior Landon Green. He played center in 2014 but has transitioned to tackle for the fall. Junior Cameron Pack is Sellers’ current choice to replace Green at center.
The battle for playing time along the offensive front has come down to a plethora of potential candidates, working out 15 players.
Sellers expects senior Mykel Dick will play at left tackle, while senior Jose Gonzalez is anticipated to play at left guard. Senior Jason Stone seems most likely to play at right guard, but the right tackle position is the most available for the taking — as Sellers said Luis Salazar, Joe Hill, Matt Cooper, Kyle Shurtz, James Terry, and Matt Chacon are all in the mix for minutes.
In the passing game, Smiley is the leading-returning pass catcher — snagging 16 balls for 254 yards and two scores.
“Tuff Carpenter will also be relied upon. He has good hands and will make some catches for us,” Sellers said.
The receiving crew will include a lot of new faces and some returning varsity players. Sellers expects Baum and Bejarano to contribute on the outside and said juniors Angelo Jones, Trevor Basaraba and Kyrin Allen could gain more reps and looks as the season progresses.
“Angelo and Trevor are tough. They can handle contact over the middle,” said Sellers. “Kyrin may be the most athletic player Elko has ever seen. He’s big, strong and fast. Once he learns the game better and builds his confidence up, he could be scary good.”
The Indians will once again run their defense from what is essentially a 5-2 base formation, varying the lineup according to the offensive formations of the opponent.
The only returning starter along the defensive line is Pengelly, who will play nose guard. Wickersham will also see time along the front when he is not set at his inside-linebacker position. The other inside linebacker position will be manned by Holt. Smiley, Peck and Austin Smith — a junior transfer with potential from Odessa, Texas — will play on the outside. Samuel Metz is expected to see time along the outside when he returns from injury.
“Austin is a big, athletic kid. He can throw the ball, too. He might split time at quarterback with Puentes, or we may try him at tight end or the ‘Z’ position,” said Sellers. “We are trying to keep it watered down and simple for him right now. He has a lot of talent, but we need to find out where he fits best for us.”