After being eliminated in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs last season, Gilbert football coach Barry Harley hopes a more explosive offense can get the Indians over that hurdle this season.
Gilbert is looking to replace bruising running back Omar Bethea, a 1,500-yard rusher who scored 22 touchdowns. Harley feels the weapons on offense will stretch the field and provide more options.
People would put everybody in the box, and we didnt have the guys on the perimeter that could stretch the field, Harley said. I think this year we have guys that will force teams to open up the middle.
Mitch Spires is back at quarterback. He struggled throwing the ball with limited options at receiver, but did account for 600 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.
The backfield contains a trio of backs that Harley feels good about. Jaylen Jennings is the top candidate after transferring from Batesburg-Leesville early last season. He is healthy and looked good in summer workouts after missing time from an injury he suffered playing baseball.
Nick Hendrix could contribute at quarterback, running back or wide receiver. Matt Ligons also could see time in the backfield. Jalon Bright is back as the top receiver.
Gage Smith (6-foot-3, 285 pounds), a three-year starter on the offensive line, and center Carter Tetanich will be counted on to lead the group.
Were more athletic this year than weve been in probably three years., Harley said. Were back on track as far as that goes. They just need to step up and play. Their toughness hasnt been tested yet. Most of them have played for us as young kids, but theyre bigger stronger and faster now.
Some of those same players will be counted on defensive as well. One upgraded area is at cornerback. Jennings and Hendrix will probably hold those positions and be able to blanket receivers without much help. They ended last year by allowing 35 or more points to their final four opponents.
Weve struggled in the secondary the last few years, and we feel our corners can match up with anybody, Harley said. We struggled with teams that could throw the ball, but we feel that could be an advantage for us this year. That should help us overall defensively.
Zack Thier, a top prospect, is back after leading the team with 112 tackles. Defensive ends Travis Keisler and Keith Dort are poised to have big years. Ligons is back at one of the outside linebacker spots as well. Safety Garnett Cason is a big-hitter and he will also see time at wide receiver.
For the most part, weve done a really good job of conditioning and doing what weve asked, Harley said. These kids will come to play every week like they have ability to play with anybody in the state. If we dont come to play, everybody can beat us, but were excited about what we have returning.