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High School Football: Striking McCord frowned upon

Quarterbacks, even the most talented of the lot, rely on protection from the offensive line in order to flourish.

But with a small collection of blockers in front of him that include a pair of sophomores yet to experience varsity action, Sage Hill School senior CJ McCord is being strategically equipped to deliver his own brand of protection to his potentially overmatched pocket constructors.

The plan is for McCord, a first-team All-Academy League football honoree who threw for 1,504 yards and 13 touchdowns, with just three interceptions in 2013, to release his passes from the shotgun formation quickly enough to avoid the threat of the pursuing pass rush.

The presence of talented tailback Beau Roth, a senior whose 1,144 yards were 81% of the team's rushing attack last season, should also help McCord and interim head coach Tom Kirchmeyer, who remains the offensive coordinator, keep defenses honest.

But whether or not the aforementioned blocking wall, which will not include a tight end, can keep would-be tacklers at bay, might determine whether a group of skill-position players Kirchmeyer said is the most talented he has seen in his six seasons in the program, will have enough opportunities to make plays.

The lack of size in the trenches is compounded by a significant lack of depth, reflected in the prospect of as many as eight two-way starters.

The Lightning, who were 5-6 last season but made their first trip to the CIF Southern Section East Valley Division playoffs since 2010, figure to also be challenged by the 11th-hour departure of former coach J.R. Tolver.

Tolver stepped down at the end of the first week of preseason practice after five seasons at the helm.

Here's a position-by-position look at the Lightning, who open the season Friday at home against Santa Ana Calvary Chapel:

Quarterback: McCord, the CIF State runner-up in the high jump last spring, has reportedly added 10 pounds to his still-lanky frame, which has made him susceptible to injury in his two previous seasons as the starter.

A concussion and a shoulder injury sidelined him for parts of three games last season, when he completed 142 of 253 attempts and also rushed 21 times for 65 yards and three touchdowns.

McCord missed considerable action due to injuries as a sophomore.

Robbie Rosoff, who filled in admirably last season as a sophomore (throwing for 439 yards, eight touchdowns and only one interception on 53 attempts), elected not to return, which places an even higher premium on McCord's health as a factor in the team's success.

"When you watch him throw, you sometimes can't believe that arm is attached to that body," Tolver said of McCord, whom Tolver considers a classic pocket passer who would much rather stand in and throw than pull the ball down and scramble.

"It's a powerful arm that shows you just the kind of athletic explosion that makes him so good in the high jump.

"He should have a big senior year, because he is smart, hard-working and talented," Tolver said.

Sophomore Caden Sheetz is the backup after gaining limited experience on the junior varsity in 2013 (a lack of bodies limits Sage to only sporadic participation in junior varsity games).

Running Backs: Before his departure, Tolver described Roth is an instinctive runner who, though lacking exceptional speed, has ample explosiveness.

"He's a good football player," Tolver said of Roth, whose 81 tackles from the rover position ranked second on the defense last season.

"He doesn't have top-end speed, but he has the ability to make [tacklers] miss, and he can run over guys to make space when there is not a lot of space."

Junior Alfonso Corona, whom Tolver said may display the most nastiness between the whistles of any player on the team, may also contribute here.

In addition, DJ Henry, a junior transfer from Irvine who has not yet played high school football, has displayed athleticism, Tolver said.

Receivers: Kirchmeyer hopes athleticism will trump experience here after then-seniors Will Burns and Sam Misarek combined for 94 receptions, 1,086 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall.

Jake Fisher, a junior who had five catches for 43 yards and one touchdown in 2013, will be counted upon to step his production.

Senior Vince Wetmore and junior speedster David Dewey, as well as seniors Zach Burns and Rafe Feffer are also expected to add to McCord's targets, Kirchmeyer said.

Tolver said Zach Burns, Will's younger brother, could be a late bloomer who will benefit this fall from added size and development.

Tolver said Dewey (two catches for 13 yards last season) may be the fastest player on the team, while Wetmore, who earned second-team all-league honors in the secondary after transferring from Edison in 2013, is poised to add productivity on offense this season.

Offensive line: Aaron Kim, a senior who earned second-team all-league recognition as a junior, is slated to start at left tackle. At just more than 200 pounds, Kim and junior center Barry Valdez are the burliest of the starting blockers.

Senior Logan Cook, who played tight end last season, has been moved to right tackle, as the tight end has been phased out, Tolver said.

Sophomores Daniel Levy and Brett Jordan are the front-runners to step in at the guard spots.

Tolver said veteran offensive line coach Zeb Smithson will be charged with developing capable backups on a roster that tops out around 30, but has less than two dozen players who figure to contribute on the varsity level.

Defensive line: Kim, who played mostly on offense last season, is slated to supplement his time in the trenches at noseguard, where he anchors a three-man line in the three-three-five scheme employed by co-coordinators Ricky Sharpe and Shane Russell.

Valdez and Levy figure to contribute at the end spots, where newcomer Jack Dickinson, a sophomore who played varsity volleyball last season, could also chip in.

"[Dickinson] has long arms, so we are hoping we can put him on the edge and he can use his athleticism," Tolver said.

Linebackers: Fisher, who was in on 56 tackles last season, and Corona (41) provide experience on the outside, while Cook and Henry are the candidates to take over in the middle.

Secondary: Roth shared the team interception lead with Wetmore (two) last season, and both occupy the rover spots, which Tolver said are more linebackers than safeties.

Tolver praised Wetmore's aggressiveness and said he and Corona are the strongest players on the squad.

"[Wetmore and Roth] are both good football players who are good against the run or the pass," Tolver said.

McCord started at corner last season, but ideally he would only be used in passing situations this season, in order to preserve his health.

Feffer is the projected starter at the other corner, while Dewey and sophomore Miles McCord, CJ's younger brother, are projected to battle for the free safety spot.

Special teams: Senior Gordon Strelow, a soccer player for the school, has rejoined the football team after sitting out last season and will handle kicking and punting chores, Tolver said.

Valdez is the long snapper and Sheetz is expected to hold.

Tolver said Roth, Wetmore and Henry are expected to handle the punt and kickoff return duties.

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