Position-By-Position: Mesa numbers low, expectations high

Wally Grant isn't a believer of carrying 50 players on a high school varsity football team, just to have a large number.

The only number he cares about as the coach at Costa Mesa High is 34. That is the number of players on his roster this year.

"This is what's made it through my program," Grant said. "[With] what I'm asking them to do year-round, there [are] just not that many kids that are going to do it.

"If we stay healthy, and that's going to be the whole key as long as I'm here, we're going to do what we're supposed to do and we're going to compete. If we get one or two kids hurt, then we become a very average team real quick."

Average isn't how the Mustangs performed last season in Grant's debut in charge of his alma mater.

He led the Mustangs to an 8-3 record, their first eight-win season in nine years, and back to the CIF Southern Section Southern Division playoffs after they missed the postseason in 2010.

In the regular-season finale, Grant had Costa Mesa in a first-place showdown in the Orange Coast League with rival Estancia. Both teams went into the Battle for the Bell rivalry game undefeated in league.

Costa Mesa lost to Estancia and the setback cost the Mustangs more than a league title. Grant said the loss affected his players the following week, the start of the playoffs.

"They were still under that mentality that that game was the make-or-break game. That's how they based their high school career was on beating the school rival," said Grant, adding that making the playoffs and winning in the playoffs means more than the Battle for the Bell.

"What I have to get across to my kids is that [the Estancia] game is no more important than the Calvary Chapel game, the Godinez game, the Saddleback game and the Laguna Beach game."

Competing for a league crown is always the goal for Costa Mesa. Another is ending a long postseason drought.

The last playoff triumph for the Mustangs came in 1997. Since then, they are winless in eight postseason appearances.

"Got to get that monkey off this program's back," said Grant, knowing it will be a challenge with tailback Mario Smith gone.

Smith was a difference maker last season as a senior for Costa Mesa. He rushed for 2,155 yards and 28 touchdowns on 197 carries, earning Daily Pilot Newport-Mesa Dream Team and Orange Coast League MVP honors. He also scored 30 touchdowns, a Costa Mesa single-season record.

Grant doesn't expect the Mustangs to score as much as they did last season, when they averaged a school-record 41.7 points per game. They won't have to because the defense is much improved.

Junior linebacker Oronde Crenshaw, who made the Cal-Hi Sports All-State Underclassmen first team for sophomores last season, is anchoring the Costa Mesa defense. This unit is fast, but many players like Crenshaw have to start on both sides of the ball because of the team's low numbers.

"Numbers don't really matter to us," said senior lineman Oscar Reyes, "as long as every single person out there is going hard."

Below are the rest of the players the Mustangs are counting on to give it their all:

Quarterback: Seniors Noah JeyaRajah and Kurt Williams are battling for the starting job.

Grant said the 5-foot-11 JeyaRajah has a stronger arm and is three inches taller than Williams, but Williams saw time last season at quarterback.

"Whenever he rolled in, we were up [big], so he couldn't throw the ball," Grant said of Williams, who backed up Nathan Alvis last year. "He played in the second half of seven of our 11 games."

Junior Oliver Ferris is the team's third quarterback.

Whoever earns the nod at quarterback, he will be handing the ball off a lot in the Mustangs' ground-and-pound offense.

Running backs: Smith's younger brother, Justin Smith, takes over in the backfield. While he's no "Super Mario" like his older brother, who is at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, Grant likes the younger Smith.

"Pretty darn good," Grant said of Justin, a 5-7, 170-pound senior. "[He's] not as fast [as Mario]. He's thicker [than Mario], but he's a step slower. Mario's a 4.4 [40-yard dash] kid and Justin's a 4.6 kid."

Crenshaw gives the Mustangs a bruising back with speed. He's the starting fullback for the second straight year, but the 6-1, 215-pounder can run.

He showed what he could do last year, rushing for 409 yards and nine touchdowns on 39 carries. Crenshaw will also block for senior Jose Villalpondo.

Receivers: JeyaRajah might find himself hauling in passes if he doesn't start at quarterback. And that's more than OK with Grant.

"Whether he starts at quarterback or starts at receiver, he's a playmaker," Grant said.

The Mustangs lost standout Jordan Walden to graduation. Walden, a Dream Team and first-team All-Orange Coast League pick, led the team with 44 catches for 708 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

Grant said Markiece Traylor, who was ineligible last year, is a wideout with speed and great hands. The senior runs a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash.

Juniors Daniel Lawrence (6-1) and Quinten Bell (6-3), a transfer from Long Beach Poly, will see time at receiver as well.

Tight end: Anthony McCormick returns as a starter. The 6-2, 230-pounder will be doing a lot more blocking than route running in the Mustangs' run-oriented attack.

When the team goes to a double-tight-end formation, Villalpondo or Bell will line up.

Offensive line: The guys up front are bigger than last season's group.

The biggest isn't senior Oscar Reyes, a third-year starter, but the 5-7, 215-pound left guard is the strongest. He's the first to join Grant's 1,000-pound club, which combines the bench, squat and power clean exercises.

At left tackle is junior Marco Zalpa (6-2, 270 pounds) and senior Brian Elias (6-2, 330) is the right tackle. Next to Elias on the right side is junior guard Joseph Quiroz (6-2, 265).

Three players — junior Jesse Liebel (5-6, 180), senior Alan Obregon (5-9, 225) and sophomore Benny Dawson (5-10, 260) — are competing at center.

Defensive line: The Mustangs are running a 46 defense and they have two starting linemen returning. Reyes is back at nose tackle and McCormick at one of the end spots.

Villalpondo is the other end. Sophomore Will Padilla will back up McCormick and Villalpondo.

Quiroz, Elias and Zalpa will see time inside next to Reyes.

Linebackers: Crenshaw is the top linebacker in the area. He is back in the middle after making 130 tackles, the most in Newport-Mesa last year.

Crenshaw earned Dream Team and first-team all-league honors last season.

The outside linebackers are seniors Rudy Aguirre, Kyle Barnett and Erick Diaz.

Secondary: Fast is the best way to describe this unit.

Smith and Bell are the cornerbacks. Smith, a returning defensive starter, moved to corner after playing outside linebacker last season.

Traylor is a safety and JeyaRajah a hybrid safety-linebacker.

Special teams: Grant has five athletes, from Bell to Traylor to Smith to Crenshaw to JeyaRajah, who can return punts and kickoffs.

Jake Lux, a senior, will no longer split the kicking duties. The job is his.

david.carrillo@latimes.com

Twitter: @DCPenaloza

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