Most teams couldn’t recover from the loss of three talented running backs.
But Palo Verde isn’t most teams. And the Panthers got an infusion of talent to help, as well.
The loss of Chaz Thomas, Torin Harris and Sidney Hodge from the backfield left a huge hole — those three accounted for 3,320 yards and 35 touchdowns last season.
Yet the running game shouldn’t be a problem for the Panthers, who won the Sunset Region title and lost 13-12 to McQueen in the state title game.
“It kind of feels like when you watch USC and they have all those eight or nine running backs to choose from,” senior offensive tackle/linebacker Daniel Godkin said. “It kind of feels like we’ve got about six guys that we can throw in there.”
Senior Tyrone Blake will lead the way after rushing for 919 yards and 11 TDs as a fullback last year. He’ll move to wing this season in the Panthers’ double-wing offense.
But he’ll get plenty of help, as transfers Ernest Hall (Del Sol) and Brandon Wright (Centennial) offer talented options, as well. Hall rushed for 1,198 yards and 15 TDs, and Wright had 977 yards and 13 TDs.
And Palo Verde is deep enough at running back that neither Hall nor Wright is slated to start at the beginning of the season.
The other wingback slot will be manned by the speedy Chappell Thomas, Chaz Thomas’ younger brother.
Add in track sprinter Courtney Robinson, and the Panthers have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield.
“There’s five wings there for two spots,” coach Darwin Rost said. “And they’re all fighting for it. So we’ve got a lot of depth in those positions. And what’s nice about all of those kids, not one of them looks the same.”
Blake and Hall run with more power, while Thomas and Wright are more elusive. And Robinson, who Rost said is the school’s fastest athlete, is a home run threat.
“Because we have so many different types of threats, people don’t know what to defend,” said senior Grant Bernhardy, who is taking over at fullback.
Blake offers plenty of versatility. He came up and started at fullback and linebacker in the state semifinals and has started both ways the last two seasons.
Rost said Blake could easily shift back to fullback and also could see time at quarterback in a “wildcat” formation.
Senior Sean Mears will step in for Kelly Zurowski (1,135 passing yards, 17 TDs) at quarterback. And Rost said Mears will give the offense another dimension with his running ability.
“Kelly had speed, but he just wasn’t a runner,” Rost said. “Mears is actually like a running-back type guy. He can put a move on somebody.”
The defense should be stout again, although several key players are switching positions.
All-Sunset Region defensive end Godkin moves to middle linebacker to replace three-year starter Dave Castro.
“Moving Daniel Godkin from (defensive) end to linebacker really shocked me, but he’s doing real well there,” Blake said. “Our defense is still strong.”
Defensive tackle Erick Grijalva and defensive end Jared Olsen are back to anchor the line, and Blake moves from linebacker to safety to help shore up a secondary that was wiped out by graduation.
Hall, an All-Sunrise Region defensive back, will step in at safety, and Chappell Thomas takes over one of the cornerback spots vacated by Hodge (UNLV) and Harris (Southern California).
“Our defense is looking really good,” Godkin said. “We lost some guys, of course, but we’re bigger than we were last year. Our corners are not Torin, but they’re fast and they’re quick and they know what they’re doing. We look real good. I’m really excited about the season.”