Even though nobody is willing to come right out and say it, most everyone who has anything to do with the football program at Cal State Northridge is looking forward to two things this fall:
Proving last year's 8-3 season was not just a one-season stand.
Flogging their Western Football Conference opponents.
To that end, the Matadors convene Friday for three days of light workouts before starting two-a-day drills Monday.
Three other Valley-area colleges--Cal Lutheran, Valley and Moorpark--also open practices this week. All have holes to fill and mysteries to solve.
It is true that CSUN's 1986 season was something of an oddity. A season-ending 21-17 loss at Cal State Sacramento cost the Matadors a first-ever NCAA Division II playoff berth, but their 8-3 record was the best in the program's 26 years.
The Matadors have 12 starters returning, including defensive tackles Dester Stowers and Steve Dominic, both all-conference performers a year ago. Three other All-WFC players also return--center Brian Clark, linebacker Mark Dozier and defensive back Kip Dukes.
But questions remain. Who, for instance, will take the place of Mike Kane, Northridge's career rushing leader who ran for more than 1,500 yards last season? Probably no one. A trio of Matadors will try--Richard Brown, Kane's understudy for two years, Lance Harper, who made a habit of gaining or losing 10 yards a carry last year, and Albert Fann, a freshman from Cleveland High.
"Richard Brown is the heir apparent," Coach Bob Burt said. "He's paid his dues and he's a very talented back. He has even more innate ability than Michael did. As far as ability, Richard has every right to be equal to Mike. Lance Harper could also pick up some of that slack. Albert Fann remains to be seen.
"Obviously, we'll feel the loss of Kane, but we can't feel that just because he's gone we can't play. I think we're enhanced at that position. We'll be able to spread the wealth around even more."
Translation: Burt is more than a little worried.
And who will play quarterback now that Chris Parker and Danny Fernandez are gone? Can Rob Huffman, a JC All-American from Glendale College, convince coaches that last year's idea of playing musical quarterbacks is a bad idea? Will freshman redshirt Sherdrick Bonner live up to his billing? Burt describes Bonner as a combination of Randall Cunningham, now with the Philadelphia Eagles and Damon Allen, who played at Cal State Fullerton.
Beyond Clark, the offensive line is an unknown. Lou Murino (6-6, 277), who alternated at guard and tackle last season, will play tackle. Julius Beauvais (6-5, 260), Mike Lisi (6-3, 265) and Cornelius Harrell (6-5, 270) also will battle for starting positions. Lisi is a redshirt who transferred from Utah State.
Even before camp begins Friday, most of CSUN's mysteries already are solved, at least in Burt's opinion. "We have depth at every position," he said. "You just don't win with your starting 22. You need quality depth and we have it."
The single-minded question facing Cal Lutheran, also a member of the WFC, is: What does it take to survive the conference schedule? The Kingsmen, 3-8 last season, showed streaks of brilliance--but only short ones. A strong starting lineup, which was on par with the better conference teams, was wiped out by injuries, including a knee sprain to quarterback Tom Bonds. However, if Bonds--and a few other starters--can stay out of the hospital this season, they might challenge some opponents.
Besides staying alive, two concerns have surfaced for the Kingsmen--receivers and the defensive line. Five of the top six receivers from a year ago are gone. Four of those losses were to graduation, but the fifth was a surprise. Cary Grant, in his freshman season, was the Kingsmen's most effective receiver with 44 receptions in nine games. He left school in the spring because of poor grades. That leaves Joe Monarrez as the top returning receiver. He had 34 receptions for 557 yards and 6 touchdowns.
The defensive line lost tackles Mike Miller and John Hynes. George McKenzie, a 6-3, 250-pound tackle from Moorpark, and Russell Patterson, a nose guard last year, will try to replace them. From there, depth is a concern.
WFC coaches have few concerns, though, about CLU. In spite of Bonds, who is within reach of Division II career passing records, the coaches unanimously picked the Kingsmen to finish last in the conference for a third straight season.
In the Western State Conference, Moorpark, which shared the conference title with Glendale two years ago, is 14-7 over the past two seasons.
Valley, which won its last six Southern California Conference games in 1986, must replace 11 starters. But the Monarchs return quarterback Barry Hanks, who took over at midseason and went on to lead state junior colleges in passing efficiency.
Valley Coach Chuck Ferrero said there are questions in the defensive secondary, where Valley has only one starter returning--Matt Byrne, the conference leader with eight interceptions. The Monarchs are solid at linebacker with a group led by Joe Zacharia. Erik Litmanovich, a 282-pound offensive tackle, is the only returning starter on the offensive line. Tight end Randy Bohn also returns.
Ferrero summarized the preseason feeling among most of the Valley-area coaches when he said, "Right now, I feel good. How I'll feel five weeks from now, I don't know."