OCC not so well-schooled

Coaches like to philosophize about the off-season, stating frequently that games are won in the weight room and on the recruiting trail.

The Orange Coast College football team, however, may have lost its best chance at a successful 2008 season in the classroom this past off-season, as no fewer than seven projected starters have come up academically ineligible.

Among those who failed to make the grade(s) are five returning starters, including second-team All-Mission Conference American Division tight end Billy Brown.

“I think this is as bad as it’s ever been,” Pirates Coach Mike Taylor said of the academic woes that created the biggest void on the offensive line, where, including Brown, the six-man front wall is missing four would-be starters. “I think our team grade-point average went down from around 2.8 to 2.2 (on a 4.0 scale). It’s a wake-up call.”

Taylor, entering his ninth season at the helm, has instituted a three-hour-a-week study hall requirement for all players and he and his staff have made monitoring academics a higher priority.

In addition to the scholastic casualties, returning starters Alipate Tokomaata, a second-team all-division defensive tackle, and Saul Cantoran, a strong safety, have left the program, creating opportunities on the depth chart, from which five all-division sophomores are now at four-year programs.

Leading the returners from a team that went 5-5, 3-2 in the American Division, which has now morphed into the Southern California Football Assn. Southern Conference, are first-team all-division performers Dean DeLeone and Shad Baichtal. In addition, sophomore strong safety Benjamin Soza, who redshirted last season after sustaining a broken collarbone in preseason drills, is back after earning second-team all-division honors in 2006.

Sophomore tailback Kevin Ah-Hi, also returns after collecting 802 rushing yards and earning second-team all-division honors last season.

The Pirates have been picked to finish sixth in the seven-team conference, in which Saddleback, Palomar, Fullerton, Santa Ana, Grossmont and Long Beach also reside.

OCC opens the regular season Saturday at home against Santa Monica at 6 p.m.

Here’s a position-by-position look at the Pirates:

Quarterback: Taylor Hughes, the Newport-Mesa Offensive Player of the Year at Corona del Mar High in 2006, was among three players who saw playing time last season. The sophomore is battling Sean Reilly, a former Orange County All-Star at Trabuco Hills High, for the starting nod.

“Both will play early, until we figure out which one is going to be the best,” Taylor said.

Taylor said Hughes has more physical gifts, including the stronger arm. It’s his mobility, however, that may be his biggest asset in the Pirates’ spread offense.

But Reilly has better vision, Taylor said, and Reilly threw the ball impressively in the preseason scrimmage against East Los Angeles, when he was eight for 13 for 173 yards and two touchdowns.

Hughes was five for nine for 56 yards in the scrimmage.

Kyle Burdett, a freshman out of Los Alamitos High, provides depth.

Running backs: Ah-Hi a bounce-back from Montana State last season, had 266 yards on 48 carries in a win over Long Beach last fall. Having scored six touchdowns on 186 attempts last season, he is the incumbent starter. But he will share time with potentially a handful of others, Taylor said.

Freshman Ahmed Mokhtar, who went to Oregon State out of Mater Dei High, has returned to Orange County and push Ah-Hi.

Freshman Ray Holley is a hard-running El Modena High product, while sophomore returner Marquise Lawrence and freshman Areseo Lakey, out of Edison, are also in the mix, Taylor said.

Sophomore Kornell King is a returning starter at fullback, where Swedish exchange student Johan Stenberg and Estancia High product Matt Redding provide depth. Redding, a receiver at Estancia, was a backup tight end as a freshman last fall.

Taylor said an emphasis on the short passing game will provide more opportunities for running backs to be utilized as receivers.

“We’re probably not going to be able to consistently run the ball between the tackles,” Taylor said.

Receivers: Taylor said the Pirates have more speed at wideout than they have had in years.

Sophomore Cameron Hall, who started some as a freshman, is an imposing target at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. He averaged 43 yards on three catches in the scrimmage, including touchdown plays of 59 and 26 yards.

Freshmen Durron Moss and Kirk Jones, both former stars at Orange High, as well as David Doll (Hawaii) and Johnny Butler (Arizona) are among a deep cast expected to contribute.

Tight end: With Brown now making plans to return in 2009, Taylor said freshman Tate Norris from Meridan, Wash. and Anthony Vidal, a freshman from Huntington Beach High, should step in and be productive.

Cordell Simmons, who played extensively last season, is not in the program, Taylor said.

Offensive line: Finau Fiaseu and Harrison Lauer, both returning starters, are among the academic casualties, as is Newport Harbor High product Charles Schultz, a projected starter at left tackle who saw spot duty in 2007.

Jacob Hayes (6-2, 293), who received some seasoning as a freshman last fall, should be the leader of the group, at either left guard or left tackle, Taylor said.

Steven Dean (6-0, 260), a sophomore out of Corona del Mar High, is battling Frank Arriola (6-1, 288), a freshman out of Mission Viejo High, for the starting spot at center.

Craig Standridge (6-4, 285), a freshman out of Marina, could start at one guard spot. But he did not play in the scrimmage due to a stress fracture in his foot.

Taylor said Gerald Crisp (6-1, 285), a freshman from Las Vegas, could start at left tackle, but he has been plagued by nagging leg injuries, thus far.

Freshmen Dan Murincsak (6-3, 230) out of El Toro and Jon Roche (6-3, 285) out of Aliso Niguel are other candidates at tackle, Taylor said.

Freshman James Cervantes (6-5, 287) out of California High in Whittier, is also in the mix.

“I like the group’s athletic ability and I think, as a unit, it is more physical than last year’s line,” Taylor said. “But [the players] are inexperienced, so it could take a while for them to get their sea legs.”

Defensive line: London Sapolu (ineligible) and Tokomaata aren’t back to anchor the interior at tackle, but DeLeone, who will split time between end and outside linebacker, is the team’s most talented performer, Taylor said.

“He’s a special player,” Taylor said of DeLeone, the son of former Ohio State All-American center Tom DeLeone, who played 12 seasons in the NFL. “He’s 6-3, 245 pounds and he runs [4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash].”

DeLeone, 25, who came to OCC last season after serving in the Coast Guard, had 78 tackles, second most on the team, and four sacks as a freshman.

Sione Liufau (6-4, 270), a freshman out of Hawaii who sat out last season with a knee injury, is another front-runner at end, where sophomore Christian Bonsall (6-5, 265), who played at OCC in 2006, should also be a factor.

Freshman Taylor Beukes (6-2, 245) and sophomore Aaron Valenzuela (6-3, 245), who was a backup tight end on the 2006 OCC squad, add depth at end.

Justin Niutapuai (6-0, 280), a freshman out of Huntington Beach, and Brandon Allen (6-0, 255) a freshman out of Mary Star of the Sea in San Pedro, are expected to help fill the void at the two tackle spots.

Kevin Borton (6-0, 270), a freshman out of El Modena, and Dane Kibodeaux (6-4, 280), a sophomore from Texas, are tackles also expected to contribute, Taylor said.

Linebackers: Shaun Mohler, the division’s Defensive Player of the Year last season, has moved on to Colorado, while Matt Harris a second-team all-division middle ’backer is now at Montana State.

Travis McNaughton, a freshman bounce-back from Northern Arizona, via Mater Dei, was expected to take over the weak-side outside spot Mohler owned for two seasons.

But McNaughton is now slated to miss the season after sustaining a high ankle sprain.

Matt Henry (6-2, 250), a freshman bounce-back from Colorado State, is expected, Taylor said, to start in the middle, where freshman Isaih Reupena (6-2, 220), a former All-CIF standout at Mater Dei who returns from a church mission, is also expected to see plenty of action.

DeLeone will see time at on the weak side, where Jimmy Keating, a freshman from Edison, is also expected to contribute.

On the strong side, Taylor said the combination of Hank Turner, a freshman from Oregon, and Andrew Powitzky, a freshman out of Aliso Niguel, are expected to be an improvement from last season.

Secondary: Baichtal had a team-leading seven interceptions last season, while Soza shared the team lead with four picks in 2006. And with proven reputations as big hitters who provide strong run support — they were among the team’s leading tacklers as freshmen — they are likely the best safety tandem in Southern California, if not beyond.

Patrick Flanagan, who started as a freshman last season and whom Soza called the team’s best cover corner, was yet another academic casualty.

Taylor said Karlo Bantan, who started as a freshman last season at Santa Monica, and sophomore Josh Jordan, a part-time starter last season, are the front-runners at cornerback.

DeQuan Everett, a freshman out of Long Beach Wilson, and Anthony Curry, a freshman from Florida, are backups at cornerback.

Freshmen Kiahi Raikes (Hawaii) and Max Chase (El Modena) provide depth at safety.

Special teams: Taylor is enthused about the place-kicking of freshman Ryan Casano, a Texas Christian bounce-back who has shown field-goal range beyond 50 yards in practice.

Sophomore David Harrington returns at punter, but Taylor said Jake Fields, a freshman bounce-back from Marshall, is expected to push him for the job.

Dane Fernandez, a goalie on the men’s soccer team, will back up Casano.

Baichtal and Soza are expected to handle returns, where Nathan Barnett earned first-team all-division honors the last two seasons.

BARRY FAULKNER may be reached at (714) 966-4615 or at barry.faulkner@latimes.com.

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