Seven-Up: Defensive front a strength for Spartans football team
Rochester Mayo returns three offensive linemen, three wide receivers and a veteran quarterback from a team that passed for nearly 2,300 yards last season en route to a berth in the Section One, Class AAAAA semifinals.
But the key to the Spartans' success in 2011 likely lies on the other side of the ball.
Mayo's defensive front seven — its four defensive linemen and three linebackers — is possibly the best its been since Kevin Landherr took over as the team's head coach in 2008.
"It's an experienced group and they're all very physical football players," Landherr said. "We have a very talented front seven and they play well together."
The "muscle" of the front seven is found inside along the defensive line. Senior tackles Justin Carr (6-feet-1, 230 pounds) and Ben Gillard (5-11, 215), who moved from fullback to the line, will be expected to disrupt the opposing offensive line.
"(Gillard) and Carr inside, they're just extremely physical players," Landherr said. "They have the ability to read a play well and move guys around."
On the edges, senior ends Tanner Tschaan and Nick Egersdorf are both strong pass-rushers and play the run well. Sophomore Drew Silber (6-2, 210) will likely start the first two games of the season at end, as Egersdorf, running back Justin Ashbaugh and receiver Gunnar Olson will miss those games due to a Minnesota State High School League rules violation.
Logan Broadwater, who Landherr said has had a very good fall camp, Zach Lorang and Levi Schweigert will also get playing time on the line.
The Spartans' starting linebacker trio is pretty talented, too. Seniors Jessie Haukom and Kellen Kramer return as starters after being forces against the run last season. They're joined by junior Nick Fix (6-0, 190).
"They look the part," Landherr said. "They're all physical players who can run well and rally to the ball."
Just one starter returns in the secondary, junior cornerback Maurice Cain, who possesses good speed and coverage skills. Jake Hanson, a 5-8, 150-pound junior, will start at the other corner.
Senior Luke Kuhlmann and junior Drew Burt will likely be the starting safeties, and junior Dontai Karnitz will be in the mix as well.
"We're very solid defensively as a whole," Landherr said. "The focus is to not give up the big play, keep everything in front of us."
Offensively, the Spartans have most of their playmakers back from a team that broke many of the program's passing records last season.
Mayo will, however, be looking for a player or more who can run the ball in place of two-year starter Ethan Johnson, who graduated last spring. The Spartans top returning rushers are Ashbaugh (180 yards) and Gillard (80), who will be playing along the line this year.
Junior Alex Proell will be a leading candidate to earn the job. Ashbaugh, Burt and sophomore Loren Lorang will also receive plenty of carries.
Whoever carries the ball will do so behind a veteran-filled line. Carr and Gillard will fill the guard positions flanking junior center Troy Penz. Senior Curtis Olson (6-2, 290) also returns to start at tackle, and junior Nate Bathke (6-3, 200) will start at the other tackle.
"They're smart players who understand the things we want to get accomplished," Landherr said. "They've worked incredibly hard all summer."
Troy Penz will snap to one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and the section, his cousin, Nate Penz. Nate is a senior quarterback who set a school record with 2,294 passing yards last season, including a school single-game record 362 yards in a playoff loss to Rochester Century.
Penz lost his top two targets from last season, including Lance Dozier, an honorable mention all-state receiver. He caught 70 passes for 810 yards a year ago.
There are plenty of receiving options remaining for Penz, including returners Zac Rhodes (24 receptions), Olson (23 rec., 1 TD) and Karnitz (nine rec., 1 TD). Juniors Alec Elseth (6-1, 185) and Mike Fix (5-11, 160) will also see plenty of action at receiver. Mayo's coaches were impressed with Fix's performance in scrimmages this past weekend against four metro-area schools, including perennial power Wayzata.
Elseth will also handle the punting and kicking duties, with senior Ben Walvatne competing for some kicking duties.
"It's a good mix of guys. We have some depth there," Landherr said of the receiving corps. "There's a good chemistry there with Nate. They run good routes and have good hands."
Mayo opens its season at home at 7 p.m. Friday against Section 1AAAAA opponent Farmington.