Mayo football season preview: Spartans go back to a ground game
Rochester Mayo isn't dwelling on who's not here this year.
Yes, the top passer and pass-catcher in school history are gone. Quarterback Nate Penz graduated last spring after throwing for 4,387 yards in two seasons as the Spartans' starter. His top target, Zac Rhodes (79 career receptions) also graduated.
But, the 2012 Spartans are more than happy with the group they have in the locker room. A group led by a new head coach, Donny Holcomb, who is far from new to the program.
"It's been awesome so far," said Holcomb, who served as Mayo's offensive coordinator under Kevin Landherr the past three seasons. "I love what I've seen out of the kids from the summer through now. I'm having a blast, the kids are working hard and believing in what they do."
A new-look 'O'
Mayo will have a new-look offense, which showed some positive signs in three scrimmages this past Saturday at Maple Grove. The Spartans are going back to a physical running game, led by five senior linemen and senior running back Alex Proell, the team's top returning rusher.
Proell ran for 333 yards and 5.6 yards per carry last season, though he missed multiple games due to injuries and was in an offense that was more pass-heavy than most high school teams'. Proell showed an ability to take hits — or deliver them — and grind out extra yards at the end of his runs.
"If you want to be an every-down back, you have to play and practice like one," Holcomb said. "Alex isn't afraid to deliver a blow. It will be a step up with the role he's in and he's excited about it."
A burly offensive line will pave the way for Proell, who will be joined in the backfield by juniors Loren Lorang (260 rushing yards in 2011) and Tommy Fjelsted (253 rushing yards).
The line will be anchored by tackles Cameron Gray (6-foot-3, 280) and Nate Bathke (6-3, 223). Troy Penz (6-0, 204) will start at center for a second season and junior Jonathan Rojas (6-6, 240) will start at one guard. The other guard spot is still up in the air, as Alex Selle and Zach Lorang are in a strong competition. Both are likely to see a good amount of time in Friday's 7 p.m. opener at Farmington.
"Those guys are capable of doing their job and allowing us to be a good running team," Holcomb said. "They have good size and good speed."
The line and running game will also be helped by two strong tight ends. Senior Jorden Serrano (6-3, 210) returns after missing all of last season with an injury. Junior Matt Rogers (6-3, 212) will also see the field often.
Senior Eric Manges takes over for Nate Penz at quarterback. While he won't attempt 35-40 passes per game, he will be called on to make plays in key situations and be a leader in the huddle. Senior Mike Fix (31 catches, 565 yards, 5 TDs) and sophomore Austin Braatz will be Manges' top targets. Maurice Cain and Drew Burt will also be in the mix at receiver.
Veterans lead 'D'
If Mayo's running game can chew up the clock, the Spartans are confident their defense can improve on last season, when they allowed 264.3 yards per game.
Mayo could have one of the better secondaries in the conference, led by senior cornerback Maurice Cain, a third-year starter. Corner Jake Hanson and safety Drew Burt are second-year starters and Mike Fix will start on defense for the first time at the other safety spot.
"(Cain) has the mentality to be a leader," Holcomb said. "He's doing a lot more talking and motivating. We feel pretty confident about who we have in the (secondary)."
While senior Nick Fix (6-1, 203) is the lone returning starter at linebacker, that group could be another strength for the Spartans' defense. Fix is joined by aggressive, hard-hitting juniors Fjelsted and Loren Lorang. Gunnar Grimsrud, a 6-1, 185-pound sophomore, will also see time.
"You can't replace the experience we lost, but we're excited to see (the newcomers) play in a game," defensive coordinator Joe Ties said.
Six players are battling for four spots along the line, and all will see plenty of action early in the season. The starting group includes Serrano and Zach Lorang, as well as senior Josh Benson (6-1, 220) and junior Drew Silber (6-3, 210). Seniors Sam Hinsch (5-11, 187) and Jason Callanan (5-9, 285).
"It really helps to have the luxury of being able to rotate guys in and out," Holcomb said.
Mayo has a pair of strong kickers, too, as junior kicker Jerry Brownell has connected consistently on 35-yard field goals in practice. Senior punter Alec Elseth is also back after averaging more than 30 yards per punt last season.