Change in the air for Blue Devils this season

Wa-Hi senior Zach Zehner (center) hands the ball off during practice last week. Zehner is in the hunt for the starting quarterback position with the Blue Devils as the new season opens.

Wa-Hi senior Zach Zehner (center) hands the ball off during practice last week. Zehner is in the hunt for the starting quarterback position with the Blue Devils as the new season opens. Photo by Joe Tierney.

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WALLA WALLA — There’s no denying the gaping hole departed running back Jonah Hoe left in Walla Walla High School’s football roster after graduating last spring.

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Wa-Hi senior Zach Zehner (center) hands the ball off during practice last week. Zehner is in the hunt for the starting quarterback position with the Blue Devils as the new season opens.

Hoe, who will suit up for the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., this fall, set multiple records

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Wa-Hi junior Trevor Coronado throws during practice last week. Coronado is one of the players competing for the Blue Devils' starting quaterback job.

as a tailback at Wa-Hi and received accolades from all around the region, including the Blue

Prep football previews

High school football previews highlight the upcoming seasons this week.

Last week, McLoughlin High and Weston-McEwen High previews were featured.

On Monday, Southeast 1B-8 teams Touchet and Pomeroy previews were in the U-B.

Tuesday, Southeast 2B-11 teams Waitsburg-Prescott, Dayton and DeSales were be featured.

And today, Walla Walla High School’s upcoming season is highlighted.

Dayton hosts Mac-Hi at 7 p.m. Thursday to open play in Washington.

On Friday, Wa-Hi heads to Moses Lake at 7 p.m., while DeSales hosts LaSalle at 7, Waitsburg-Prescott heads to Pilot Rock at 7, Odessa-Harrington invades Touchet at 3 p.m., and Pomeroy hosts Lummi at 6 p.m.

Mountain Sports Awards’ Male Athlete of the Year award.

But now he is gone, and so is most of the offensive line that helped plow him toward a school-record 1,828 rushing yards last season.

Mid-Columbia Conference

KENNEWICK

Last year: 5-2, 7-3-1 overall

Against Wa-Hi: Kennewick’s senior back Devven Ramos rushed for 316 yards to lead the Lions to a 40-28 victory.

Hisaw’s take: “They are very diverse on offense and have good skill kids. They are the returning 3A league champs and do an excellent job coaching their kids. They vary their defensive schemes, but always get a lot of kids to the ball and they are difficult to prepare for. They will be very tough again this year.”

KAMIAKIN

Last year: 5-2, 6-4 overall

Against Wa-Hi: A dramatic fourth-quarter comeback fell just short as Wa-Hi lost, 35-33.

Hisaw’s take: “They have an incredible cycle of athletes going through their school right now and they will be very good again. I don’t think they’ve ever been bad. They’ve got maybe the best football player in the conference, their QB/FS Kyle Robertson. He’s the real deal and makes them go. They play with a lot of emotion and do a great job playing to their strengths.”

HANFORD

Last year: 5-2, 7-3 overall

Against Wa-Hi: The Blue Devils lost a heartbreaker, 20-17, after missing several scoring chances.

Hisaw’s take: “Just like Richland, lots of athletes. They were also very physical last year and I expect them to be so this year too. Their kids play very hard and are blue collar. Never fancy, but they just get after you on every play. If you don’t show up ready to play, they will roll right over you. They will be a great challenge to everyone in the league.”

SOUTHRIDGE

Last year: 4-3, 5-5 overall

Against Wa-Hi: The Suns were able to bottle up senior running back Jonah Hoe and used a pair of big plays to take a 20-14 win from Wa-Hi.

Hisaw’s take: “Probably the best defensive team year-in and year-out in the conference. They throw so much at you. And their kids get to the ball very, very well. They are very physical every year. I think they should be very good this year. They are always in every game because of their defense and they seem to find ways to win when it’s close.

CHIAWANA

Last year: 4-3, 6-4 overall

Against Wa-Hi: A strong first half wasn’t enough to carry the Blue Devils past the Riverhawks as Chiawana scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to win, 39-35.

Hisaw’s take: “I believe (Chiawana) has to be the conference favorite. They bring a lot of kids back from last year’s team. They will be big and physical, like always. They are obviously well coached and they just don’t beat themselves. They will be on everyone’s upset radar, every Friday night.”

RICHLAND

Last year: 4-3, 5-4 overall

Against Wa-Hi: Wa-Hi held a 20-13 lead after scoring three third-quarter touchdowns, but Richland rallied in the fourth to take a 26-20 victory.

Hisaw’s take: “They always have so many athletes. They are tough to prepare for offensively because they really spread you out with multiple formations. I think they will be very tough this year.”

PASCO

Last year: 0-7, 0-10

Against Wa-Hi: The Blue Devils beat Pasco, 45-27, as Jonah Hoe rushed for 433 yards and 5 TDs.

Hisaw’s take: “They, too, were physical last year. Although their record didn’t show it, they really get after you on defense. Their kids play extremely hard. They have some different formations on offense that you don’t see a lot, which is tough to get ready for, too.”

With that in mind — and the fact that Wa-Hi has just eight seniors on its roster — change is in the air for the Blue Devils as they progress to Friday’s 7 p.m. kickoff in Moses Lake.

The Pistol

With new running backs, new quarterbacks and a new offensive line, now was as good as any time for the Blue Devils to change up their offensive philosophy.

Say goodbye to the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust known as the I-formation offense, and hello to the spread — specifically the Pistol. Made famous at the University of Nevada and now finding its way into the NFL, the Pistol finds the Goldilocks zone between under-center offenses and the shotgun.

In the Pistol the quarterback lines up four yards behind the offensive line and the running back three yards behind the quarterback.

The Pistol can be run with either a single back or two running backs, and Wa-Hi has installed packages for both formations.

“We thought it would bring a little more diversity, a little more change of direction,” Wa-Hi coach Eric Hisaw said. “Losing Jonah was fairly profound.... We thought some misdirection and some smoke and mirrors might help alleviate the stress on being really young up front.”

Wa-Hi will also be looking to spread out opposing defenses this season, running three or four receivers across the field at times and going with one or no tight ends.

It took until the second season under third-year coach Hisaw for the Blue Devils to adjust to his original offense, but he said Wa-Hi has been quick to adapt to its new philosophy this summer.

“We weren’t (using a) real big (playbook) at camp, but we were able to install a little more, a little more and now we’ve got a pretty good-sized playbook in,” Hisaw said. “Coach (Pat) Graham and Coach (Mike) Gobel have just done a fantastic job of just going out and researching and talking to people... so they’ve done a great job getting this installed for us.”

The Blue Devils will also run the option this season, including designed quarterback runs, but just who will be calling the signals has yet to be determined.

It’s a QB (non)controversy

The Blue Devils have two quarterbacks on their 90-man roster (including junior varsity and freshmen) competing for playing time, but neither have established himself as the starter.

Junior Trever Coronado (6-foot, 175 pounds) isn’t as good of a passer, but he is the more mobile of the two backs.

Senior Zach Zehner has a better arm, but isn’t as dynamic.

“They’re a nice complement either way,” Hisaw said. “If we could kind of mold them into one that would be great, but they both possess different qualities and that’s making the battle just really, really interesting right now.”

Hisaw isn’t sure who will be The Guy for game one, and in fact he may use the season-opener against nonleague Moses Lake as an audition.

Either way, the new quarterback can expect to get his licks in on the ground.

“We’re in this thing (Pistol) because they’re both athletic enough to do it,” Hisaw said. “When they pull the ball down, they are going to be a running back. We expect them to be tough and be hard-nosed and go get some yards for us. Them being in the running game is a huge part of this offense.”

Competition central

Quarterback isn’t the only wide-open position for the Blue Devils this fall. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of who might see the field this season.

RB — Willie Hayes (5-10, 190), Stuart Gillin (6-2, 205), A.J. Crump (5-7, 155), Noah Porter (6-0, 170).

Hayes and Gillin will likely both see playing time as every-down backs, while Porter and Crump will provide more lateral speed and elusiveness.

“Those two guys are different,” Hisaw said of Gillin and Hayes. “Stu’s more of a power runner — you get him out in the open and you’re not going to catch him — and Willie is great between the tackles as far as going downhill, being hard-nosed, getting those tough yards. But they both have enough speed to be able to go outside as well. They’re both great in the screen game, they can go out in the flat in the play-action stuff, so they’re both going to be great athletes for us, whether it’s in the play-action pass or in the run.”

WR — The Blue Devils have a thin but veteran corps of receivers this season. Darnell Handcox (6-0, 175), Reid Magnaghi (6-0, 155), Mitch Huffman (5-9, 155) and Forrest Swant (5-10, 175) have established themselves as starters.

“I love this group of receivers,” Hisaw said. “They had an unbelievable summer, they were here all the time. They were the ones that got throwing going with Zach (Zehner) and Trever (Coronado), they didn’t miss anything. They are in phenomenal shape right now. And the neat thing about it is, as thin as we are right now, they play every play as though their job is on the line.”

TE — Gerardo Gomez (5-11, 180) and Troy Aguilar (6-0, 210).

FB — The Blue Devils will use both Hayes and Gillin as fullbacks in two-back formations.

OL — Nate Sumerlin (6-1, 210), Nick Fuller (6-1, 220), T.J. Ashley (6-0, 240), Joe Yenney (5-10, 235), Daniel Gilmore (6-1, 178), Evan Kopf (6-2, 210) and Seth Guttromson (6-7, 310).

Sumerlin and Fuller are returning starters from last season and locks to play.

“Both Nate and Nick bring tremendous leadership and understanding of our offense,” Hisaw said. “Nate’s rock solid, he doesn’t make many mistakes, he plays with a real high motor. He’s got a great feel, a hard-nosed kid, just puts the hard hat on and doesn’t say a whole bunch, but hits you in the mouth repeatedly. We love that kind of a kid.

“Nick’s a really emotional, fiery kid,” he said. “He’s our center, he’s kind of the life-blood of that group and he’s just doing a tremendous job of leading these kids. He’s a coach on the field, helping kids with where to go. He understands the offense, what’s going on.”

DL — Sumerlin, Fuller, Kopf, Ruben Avalos (5-8, 160), Gomez.

The Blue Devils are light on the defensive line this year — both in quantity and mass — and have switched to a blitz-happy 3-4 (three down linemen, four linebackers) to compensate. Look for most of the line to play both ways, unlike last season when the Blue Devils were able to platoon the offensive and defensive line.

“I think with the D-line, we’ve got about five that can play three spots, so we can move a little bit and get things done,” Hisaw said. “Those are kids that understand the game, and Nick and Nate play tirelessly, they really do. And Daniel Gilmore has really come out of nowhere in camp. He had a good spring and he looks really good right now.

“We can’t just sit there and play smashmouth or we’ll get beat up,” Hisaw said. “We have to move, slant and go, and I think those three give us a really good chance to be disruptive in the backfield right away.”

LB — Fuller, Swant, Gillin, Hayes, Aguilar, Porter.

Hisaw thinks the linebackers will be the strength of his defense this season, another reason Wa-Hi switched to the 3-4, which allows the linebackers to roam.

“We’re going to come at you,” Hisaw said. “We’ll play static little bit, but with three guys up front you can’t afford to just sit there. We’re going to come at you and try to create havoc and try to dictate where you can, or how you’re going to go with the ball somewhere.

“I do think we run to the ball very well and we have some guys who are not afraid to take your facemask off, which is nice,” Hisaw said. “We’re starting to get that physicality part of it down finally, which is nice.”

DB — You can pencil in the starting receivers here. Magnaghi, Handcox, Huffman and Swant will play in different positions (strong safety, free safety, corner back) based on the situation and different coverages.

Wins and losses

The Blue Devils enter Hisaw’s third year at the helm on an upswing. Wa-Hi went 0-9 in Hisaw’s first season, but turned things around for a 4-6 season in 2012.

The Blue Devils were frustratingly close to winning several games last season, losing by just 5.5 points on average, but fell just short of making the playoffs.

Despite the wholesale roster turnover this offseason and a younger team, Hisaw thinks this year’s Blue Devils will take another step forward.

“I don’t think we’re tremendously smaller than anybody, honestly,” Hisaw said. “We’re not terribly small up front, but I think this is the fastest team I’ve had here in three years. This group’s got a better feel than last year’s group did as far as football sense goes.

“We’re not having to explain as much in practice, we can talk and say OK, let’s go,” he said. “We’re not having to walk kids through everything, so that part is really nice. They get the game better as a whole, but the league will be tough.”

And with two play-in berths between four teams in the MCC 4A division, Wa-Hi won’t have to improve much to reach the postseason.

“We were just eight plays from being 8-1, we were that close,” Hisaw said. “But we didn’t make them, that’s where we are. So what’s our step going to be this year?

“Are we going to go from 4-6 to 6-3?” Hisaw said. “Or are we going to go back down to 2-7 because we don’t care enough?... I think if we stay healthy we have a chance to be really competitive again and be in every ballgame.”

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