Considering how proficient high school passing attacks have become in recent years, you’d think coaches would put a premium on pass defense.
But there’s something to be said about stopping opposing teams’ running games. If you can stop a team from running the ball, you can force teams into a high-risk passing scheme.
That’s what has Turlock High coach James Peterson so pumped up about his defense this year. His linebacking corps is big, fast and talented, and will make it difficult for opposing teams to find running room.
“Stopping the run can help you make a team one-dimensional,” Peterson said. “When you can stop the run and force them to pass the ball, you can play games with coverages and you can play games with the pass rush.
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“Once you make a team one-dimensional, you can do a lot of things with your defensive schemes.”
The linebacking corps averages about 230 pounds and features a big-time playmaker in the middle.
That playmaker is transfer Andy Jennings, who attended Pitman High as a sophomore and Seaside High as a junior. Now a senior, Jennings has the size (6-foot-3, 225) and speed (under 4.6 in the 40) to wreak havoc.
“We were happy to add him to our linebacker corps,” Peterson said. “When I think of players that have Division I ability, it’s him.”
Although a newcomer, Jennings has stepped right in to become a leader on defense.
“His game play says a lot; guys have to respect his game play,” Peterson said. “He has something of a bad-boy reputation with other coaches and some of the players. He’s been great for us. If he was going down that path, he’s certainly turned himself around. I’m proud of him.”
Sophomore Mustafa Johnson (6-0, 230) and senior Zach Moore (5-11, 240) will man the outside spots for the Bulldogs. The unit is so deep, Peterson says he may consider moving Jennings to the strong safety spot and giving junior linebacker Jericho Taamu the middle linebacking duties.
The Turlock coach feels his run defense can be the key to turning around a unit that has struggled in recent years. The Bulldogs started out 4-0 last season but struggled the rest of the way to finish 5-5 overall and 1-4 in the Central California Conference.
“We haven’t played great defense in a long time,” Peterson said. “Turlock has always been known for its defense. This group is going to shine defensively.”
The standout linebacking unit should give Turlock’s new defensive coordinator, Raven Keene (formerly of Los Banos and Golden Valley), a chance to use schemes to stop opposing passers.
And it should take some of the pressure off new starting quarterback Anthony “Bubba” Moreno, a senior who is taking over for three-year starter Shawn Downs.
Described by Peterson as a “really accurate passer,” Moreno led Turlock to a second-place finish in the Modesto Junior College 7-on-7 passing tournament this summer. A former running back, he also brings mobility to the quarterback position.
“He’s a real competitor, a tough kid,” Peterson said.
Combined with a smart, athletic offensive line, Moreno could give the Bulldogs the offensive punch to go with its knockout run defense.
“I feel real confident about this team,” Peterson said.
Second-year Pitman High coach Tom Tyler, who used to be the head coach at Turlock High, thinks the Bulldogs are strong enough to challenge defending league champ Merced this season.
“I know they’re talented,” Tyler said.