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High School Football: Depth a concern for Costa Mesa

Costa Mesa High football, Wally Grant, Orange Coast League, Sammy Swanson, Mason Mataafa, Darmonta Davis, Cameron Curet, Adam JeyaRajah, Sean Tolliver, Frankie Hernandez, Jose Granados, Hadley Figueroa-Bravo, Roberto Olivares, Austin Sheffner, Neru Fesili, Brandon Stevens, Andrew Garcia, Josh Snipes

When Wally Grant became head football coach at his alma mater Costa Mesa High in 2011, he had a goal in mind.

Grant wanted the number of players in his program to be in the triple digits by his fourth year.

The Mustangs have at least come close to meeting that goal. When school starts, Grant anticipates about 60 youngsters on the varsity and junior varsity, and more than 30 freshmen out for football.

"We're knocking on that door," said Grant, who only expects those numbers to get higher in subsequent years.

The Mustangs, though, want to do more than knock on the door in regard to an Orange Coast League title. They want to defend their title from last year and return to the CIF Southern Section Southern Division playoffs.

"I don't discount us if we stay healthy," said Grant, whose team is young and lacks a lot of depth. "It could be feast or famine. We could be a very good high school football team, but if a few things go wrong, we're a year away. On paper, we look a year away. But again, if you look at those 16 [projected non-senior starters], 10 of them had quality varsity time."

But he doesn't discount other teams in the league, either.

"Estancia's got to be up there, because they have all those kids coming back," he said. "Godinez always has to be mentioned, because they're a school of 3,000-plus [students]. Calvary came together out of nowhere last year with that new staff, and put together a heck of a product.

"I think our league is starting to get the people in place to make their programs respectable. Three, four years ago, that wasn't necessarily the case. The Orange Coast League was the bottom-feeders, and I don't see that as an issue anymore."

Here's a position-by-position look at the Costa Mesa High football team, which opens its season against Northwood at 7 p.m. on Aug. 29 at Jim Scott Stadium.

Quarterback: Sammy Swanson, a junior, is the projected starter, replacing graduate Oliver Ferris. Swanson only picked up the quarterback position last year, starting late in the year on junior varsity. But Grant likes the potential of Swanson, who is 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds. To this point, he is more known for his snowboarding prowess than football.

"He has a chance to be my first quarterback that I'll have as a two-year player," Grant said. "So far since I've been here, they've been one-year quarterbacks, they've been all seniors ... The kids respect him. He's a hard worker."

Competing with Swanson for the starting nod are junior Rodrigo Carvahlo (5-8, 165) and sophomore Eric Carrasco (5-10, 155).

Running backs: Last year's tailback and fullback are both gone, as Oronde Crenshaw graduated and Will Padilla moved to Minnesota.

Mason Mataafa, a junior who is 6-3 and weighs 215 pounds, steps in as starting tailback. He started a couple of games last year as Crenshaw, the Orange Coast League MVP who rushed for 1,971 yards and 28 touchdowns, nursed nagging foot injuries. Mataafa, more of a physical runner, had 279 yards last year, averaging more than six yards per carry.

"It was fun to watch him develop as the year went on, knowing that it's going to be an easy transition for him to step into a role that Mario [Smith] had [in 2011] and Oronde had the last couple of years," Grant said. "I don't compare his speed to those two kids — it's not close.

"But in the third quarter and fourth quarter, you're going to start seeing kids that just don't want to step in front of him anymore. All of a sudden, his 10-, 15-yard plays are going to be 40-yard plays. He's a very physical kid."

The backup running back is Johnny Brucales (5-10, 165), a junior.

Sophomore Roman Ayala (6-0, 250) will take over at fullback for Padilla, who was a two-year starter.

Receivers: A largely inexperienced group, though the top two returners, senior Darmonta Davis (6-0, 175) and junior Cameron Curet (5-10, 155) each earned playing time last year.

Davis runs a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash, Grant said. So do other players in the receiving corps like junior Michael Diaz (6-0, 165) and sophomore Jamil Douglas (5-9, 140).

Of course, the Mustangs had one of the fastest guys in the state last year in graduate Quinton Bell, who is now at Texas Southern and was third in the state in the 100 meters during track season last spring.

"We have some kids that can run this year," Grant said. "I don't a kid that's Quinton, nor will I probably ever get another kid that's like Quinton. But we have a whole bunch of kids that are extremely quick for our little school. Any one of those guys are good enough athletes that if they get the ball in open field, they can do some damage."

Tight end: Two seniors should see time at the position this year, a rarity for the young Mustangs. They are Adam JeyaRajah (6-2, 240) and Sean Tolliver (6-5, 218). JeyaRajah was the Mustangs' starting left tackle in 2013.

Offensive line: Frankie Hernandez (6-4, 280), a junior, is the starting left tackle. There is a competition at left guard between junior Jose Granados (6-0, 215) and senior Hadley Figueroa-Bravo (5-10, 185).

The center is Roberto Olivares (6-0, 265), a senior who started some games last year for the Mustangs. Junior Austin Sheffner (6-0, 220) starts at right guard and Neru Fesili (6-3, 290), a junior, returns at right tackle.

Grant likes the Mustangs' size on the line, but depth is a concern.

"How that line goes is how the rest of the team goes," Grant said. "We're an injury or two away from being very, very average."

Defensive line: There are no returning starters here, as the Mustangs had a senior-led front a year ago. Ayala projects as the starter at one defensive end, with junior Brandon Stevens (6-0, 205) behind him. Fesili and junior Andrew Garcia (6-1, 220) are competing for the defensive tackle spot.

The competition for the starting nose guard spot is between JeyaRajah, Olivares and Sheffner, while Figueroa-Bravo and Tolliver are battling for the other defensive end spot.

Linebackers: Swanson and Brucales are the outside linebackers, backed up by Carvahlo and sophomore Cody Merrifield (5-4, 140).

Mataafa takes over the middle linebacker spot that Crenshaw dominated a year ago, and Grant said that Mataafa also has a chance to be special. Helper Kisino (5-6, 170) and Adrien Plancarte (5-8, 175), both juniors, also will see time at linebacker.

Secondary: Davis will start at one cornerback, with junior Josh Snipes (5-5, 160) in competition with senior Daniel Suarez (5-9, 150) for the other spot. The safeties are Diaz (free safety) and Curet (strong), while Douglas will fit into the nickel package.

Special teams: Curet is the returning kicker and punter, and a strong point for the Mustangs as he was the Orange Coast League Special Teams Player of the Year last season. He made 45 of 51 point-after touchdowns and converted all four of his field-goal attempts.

Kick and punt return duties figure to go to Diaz, Davis and Douglas. Grant said he wouldn't be surprised to see Mataafa back there, either. "Whoever's got the hot hand during practice may be the one who gets it that week," Grant said. "But I have a half-dozen kids that, if they get a crease, they're going to go."

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