CORONA DEL MAR — Jason Hitchens likes to say the defense is always ahead of the offense at this point of the high school football season.
He hopes to see the offense leap past the defense on Friday night.
When the Sea Kings open the season against Savanna at Newport Harbor High at 7, they are looking to end a five-game skid. CdM did not finish ahead of anyone in its final five games last season.
The offense was futile down the stretch. Plenty of factors contributed to the Sea Kings putting up zeroes twice and finishing Pacific Coast League play averaging 12.2 points per game, and losing every league game.
Erratic quarterback play. Too many players going both ways. The defense's inability to stop anyone.
The Sea Kings enter the season with an inexperienced quarterback for the third time under Hitchens.
The Sea Kings enter the season with 11 starters on offense that will not be part of the 11 starters on defense, a first under Hitchens.
The Sea Kings enter the season with a defensive coordinator not named Eric Johnson and a defense not named the 3-4, a first under Hitchens.
Mitch Gardner starts at quarterback.
Twenty-two different players start.
Tony Dodge is running the defense and its new scheme, the 4-4.
"I thought there [were] some changes that probably needed to be made for one reason or another," said Hitchens, whose team looks to bounce back from last season, when CdM finished 4-6, 0-5 in league play. "I think the staff overall is one of the better staffs I have ever had. [The 4-4 is] what I've run most of the time I've been a coach. It's probably more diverse than some defenses because it does adjust well to spread offenses. I wasn't familiar with the 3-4 defense as coach Johnson was.
"When you have kids that spend more time on one side of the ball, they can actually get better at the position."
Here is a position-by-position look at the Sea Kings:
Quarterback: Gardner gets the nod as a senior after starting one league game and playing a half in another last season. The passing game was one of the team's weak spots last season.
"Our big question mark will be the quarterback position," said Hitchens, who has junior Brent Lawson and senior Clark Cashion backing up Gardner. "As coaches, we've got to assume some responsibility. I think we were putting too much pressure on both Mitch and [last year's original starter] Michael [Borchard] to make plays. What we should've done is we should've geared back a lot sooner and put them in a position where we were just asking them to manage things a little bit more, rather than put a lot of pressure on them to make plays."
In the Sea Kings' scrimmage last week against Costa Mesa, Gardner ran the no-huddle, spread offense well. He completed seven of 10 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Running backs: The Sea Kings lost running backs JD Abbott and Alex Swigert to graduation.
The ground game turns to Jeff Condino, who saw some action last season when Abbott went down with an injury. The senior has speed, and at 5-foot 9 and 185 pounds, Condino is not afraid to run in between the tackles.
Senior Clay Reinhardt and junior Erik Fisher will also carry the ball, giving the Sea Kings more speed and strength. Hitchens said Reinhardt runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds and benches and power cleans 250 pounds.
Receivers: Unlike last season, Hitchens believes this group is not limited.
"Last year, we had some tall kids that weren't really fast, and that allows defenses to do a lot of things that they normally wouldn't do if they had to respect the fact that you could get on top of them," Hitchens said.
The Sea Kings have deep threats this year in senior Brent Gray and Reinhardt. Hitchens said both are also dangerous after the catch.
CdM will need to get the ball in their hands.
Gray will settle for any looks. Hitchens said Gray missed the last couple of years at CdM due to academic issues. The last time he played was as a freshman.
Hitchens said Gray runs a 4.5 40 and has good hands for someone being away from the game the last two years.
Juniors Cole Cottrell and Josh Giger and senior Austin Jones will work into the rotation as well.
Tight end: Matt English, a 6-1, 200-pound junior, is a repeat starter.
Senior Preston Risser is the backup.
Offensive line: The Sea Kings finally feature some beef upfront with Hitchens at the helm.
"They're bigger [and stronger] than they've been since I've been here," said Hitchens, adding that the linemen are part of 16 players that can power clean 250 pounds or more. "We've just got to transfer it into wins. I'm kind of hoping that this is the year where we really see that."
The linemen have grown under Hitchens.
In his inaugural season, Hitchens said only one lineman weighed 200 pounds.
All five starters, junior left tackle Liam Duddy, senior left guard Dan Steele, senior center Nick Hummel, senior right guard Max Priestley, senior right tackle Jimmy Roney, tip the scale above 200 pounds this season.
Priestley and Roney are the heaviest at 245 and 240 pounds, respectively. Roney is taller at 6-4 than the 6-2 Priestley. The two are also returning starters.
Defensive line: Seniors Dylan Salisbury and Alex Herrera are returning starters at defensive end.
Stephen Ascher is the tackle. The 6-2, 255-pound senior is the strongest Sea King. Hitchens said Ascher, who did not play last year due to academic issues, benches 330 pounds.
The nose guard is Jon Metcalfe, who reminds Hitchens of former standout nose guard Dan DiChiro.
"He's not real big," Hitchens said of the 5-10, 180-pound Metcalfe. "But he's stronger [than DiChiro]."
Linebackers: The loss of Swigert at inside linebacker might hurt the Sea Kings.
Swigert was a repeat first-team all-league performer and led the team in tackles.
Risser is going to start again inside and assume the defensive signal call duties. Junior Grant Garrett and Detrick are battling for the other inside spot.
Playing outside are juniors Kyle Sherburne and Frasier Anderson.
Secondary: Cottrell and Jones return to bolster the pass defense.
Gone is Abbott at safety and in are senior Peter Markel and Giger, who will see time at safety.
Special teams: Senior Andrew Boehm will kick field goals and extra-point kicks again for Corona del Mar.
Hitchens hopes the kicker will see more action.
"He hasn't kicked a lot of field goals," Hitchens said. "Last year, we didn't score a lot of points."
Reinhardt is the punter, and he will return kicks with Cottrell. Gray may see some action as well.
Cottrell is the punt returner.
The Sea Kings
2009 record: 4-6, 0-5 in the Pacific Coast League (last place)
Coaching staff: Head Coach Jason Hitchens (third year, 14-9), Fred Romo (offensive coordinator), Tony Dodge (defensive coordinator), Dennis Wilbanks (running backs), Greg Olquin (offensive line), Brian Pearsall (defensive line), Roland Harrison (quarterbacks), Scott Dodge (secondary), Alex Solorio (defensive line), Paul Lacanilao (trainer).
Returning starters: Six offense, five defense.
3 - Savanna (home) at Newport Harbor, 7 p.m.
10 - Huntington Beach (home) at Newport Harbor, 7 p.m.
16 - Troy at Fullerton, 7 p.m.
24 - at Newport Harbor, 7 p.m.
2 - Magnolia at Western, 7 p.m.
14 – Northwood* (home) at Newport Harbor, 7 p.m.
21 - at Irvine*, 7 p.m.
29 – Woodbridge* (home) at Newport Harbor, 7 p.m.
5 – University* (home) at Newport Harbor, 7 p.m.
12 - Beckman at Tustin, 7 p.m.
*Pacific Coast League game