The group figures to be the foundation of Ashland football over the next 2 ½ seasons.
Kevin Schilling vividly remembers his first experience with the Friday Night Lights.
"It was really nerve-wrecking," the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Ashland High defensive lineman recalled. "But it was exciting once you got going, playing at a faster pace."
Schilling is one of seven sophomores who are seeing significant playing time on defense for Ashland this fall. Along with fellow linemen Christian Ostmo, Sam Cowan and Rodney McDaniel and linebackers Jake Scarminach, T.J. Murphy and Neil Presicci, their ability to raise their games will go a long way toward determining whether the Grizzlies (2-2) make a return trip to the Class 5A state playoffs.
The group figures to be the foundation of Ashland football over the next 2 1/2; seasons.
"I think the more playing time we get this year, the better it will make us in the future," said the 5-11, 160-pound Scarminach, who has played quarterback, halfback and kick returner in addition to his starting duties at outside linebacker.
Ashland lost seven defensive starters — including all four linebackers — as well as defensive coordinator Dave Kitchell from last season's 11-1 team. The seven sophomores have combined for nearly 1/5 of the team's tackles (35) through the season's first four games.
"We knew coming in this would be an area that we'd need to develop," coach Charlie Hall said.
As one would expect, the group has experienced its share of growing pains over the first month of the season.
Entering Friday's nonconference game at Springfield, the Grizzlies are allowing 28 points per game, a big jump from last season's 12.2. Defending the run has been particularly egregious, allowing 270.5 yards per game, 6.8 yards per carry and 12 rushing touchdowns. The team surrendered just 11 scores on the ground in 12 games last season.
"We need to stop the run better," acknowledges Murphy, an undersized linebacker at just 5-9, 145 pounds who, like the others, has jumped from the relative obscurity of the freshman team to the glare of the varsity spotlight.
Last Friday, the defense was unable to contain Willamette running back Craig Loper, who ran for 229 yards and three scores. Trailing 42-34 with 3:29 to play, the Grizzlies were unable to stop the Wolverine ground attack and get the ball back to give the offense a final chance to tie the game. Willamette converted 8 of 12 third-down plays and both fourth-down plays, often running straight at Murphy behind a strong offensive line.
"It was frustrating," said Murphy, who led the Grizzlies with 7 1/2; tackles. "They're a hell of a team and had a great running back. I thought we could have made a couple more key stops ... but we just ran out of time."
Things aren't likely to get much easier against seventh-ranked Springfield on Friday, when the Grizzlies try to avoid their first three-game losing streak since the 2005 season.
Under the direction of former Willamette coach Skip Raish, the Millers are off to the first 4-0 start in school history, having already matched last season's win total. They are averaging 36.5 points per game and feature speedy running back Dusty Jarvis, who was third in the 100-meter dash at the 5A state track meet last spring, and aren't afraid to throw the ball with 6-3 lefty quarterback Jake Taylor and wideouts Mike Travess and Zady Navarro.
A key to Ashland's chances will be whether outside linebackers Murphy and Scarminach can contain the perimeter, forcing ball carriers such as Jarvis back to the middle of the field. That's where help awaits from veteran inside linebackers Issa Shahin and Lewis Sebrell, both returning to the field following one-game suspensions.
It would also help if Ostmo — who missed the Willamette game with a sprained ankle — and 6-6, 265-pound tackle McDaniel (ankle) can contribute. Both are expected to be game-time decisions.
"We've just got to try to keep them inside as much as we can," Murphy said. "Our ends and linebackers have to contain and fight off blocks and be aggressive."
While acknowledging the work facing his young charges, Hall couldn't help being impressed with their dedication.
"I saw sparks of potential in the summer," he said. "They're the core group that worked out over the summer. They were in the weight room consistently, were running consistently."
"By the time they're seniors, that line's going to be huge with Rodney, Sam Cowan and Kevin Schilling. They're all going to be 250-pounds plus and they're all going to be between 6-4 and 6-6. Jake's going to develop into a great player and is a great leader for us even as a sophomore."
The challenge for Hall and first-year defensive coordinator Tito Soriano is the mental part of the game, teaching their youngsters how to make correct decisions in the heat of battle.
"Misalignments and missed assignments will beat you more often than mismatches," Hall explained. "Even though we have young kids, if we're aligned correctly and do the right thing, we have a chance to make the (opposing) offense work for what they're going to get."
Hall said the staff is committed to the development of this sophomore class, willing to grow along with the mistakes that typically accompany younger players.
"All those guys are going to be able to do some good things for us," Hall said. "Those are the best players we have right now. That experience this year will pay dividends next year and in their senior seasons."
Not that the players or coaches have written off the 2008 campaign. Not with six games and an entire Southern Sky Conference schedule ahead of them.
"I think we're growing a lot right now," Scarminach said. "When conference comes around, these losses will make us better once we're down there."
Senior center Matt Naylor is out after suffering a knee injury on the fourth play of the game against Willamette. Junior Jordan Wright, who played most of the Willamette game, gets his first varsity start. ... Sophomore quarterback Talon Haggard has accounted for 15 touchdowns (eight passing, seven rushing) this season. Haggard has not thrown an interception since the Phoenix game three weeks ago. ... This will be the Grizzlies' third-straight game against a team from the Midwestern League.