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After strong run, USD reloads
Ron Caragher enters his third season as USD’s head football coach with a little more certainty than he did his second. He knows who his quarterback is going to be. He knows he has a cadre of running backs — all with legitimate game experience — plus an outstanding corps of returning defensive players, making the Toreros formidable on both sides of the ball.
There are pieces in place with few holes to fill.
But the holes that remain are substantial — particularly the Grand Canyon-sized opening left by John Matthews, the most prolific wide receiver in school history. He signed a free-agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts.
Who will replace his 102 catches, 21 touchdowns and 1,478 yards? Will running back J.T. Rogan, the school’s all-time leading rusher and 2007 All-American, be healthy after missing last season with a knee injury? Can the Toreros do better than 38 percent on field goals?
“Those are all camp questions,” said Caragher, whose team begins fall drills today. “There are a lot of things to be excited about.”
For instance, the Toreros, coming off a 9-2 campaign and second-place tie in the Pioneer Football League, have been picked for the fourth straight year by league coaches to win the PFL title.
And quarterback Sebastian Trujillo returns after winning the starting job in camp last year. He went on to have a first-team all-league season, passing for 35 touchdowns and 2,822 yards. He’s been named to the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top college football player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“I want to win the conference championship and go undefeated, and I think we can do that,” Trujillo said. “I’ve been working with the wide receivers all summer to get our timing down, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be the best team in the league.”
Catching his passes will be Godfrey Smith and John McGough. The two combined for 38 catches and had two touchdowns apiece last year playing behind Matthews and Ben Hannula, who graduated.
The return of Rogan at running back helps — if he’s healthy. Rogan obliterated his knee in the first quarter of the season opener last year and missed the season. He was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, and he’s hoping to return to his All-America form.
“I’m in shape for camp,” said Rogan, who led the nation in kickoff returns two seasons ago. “I worked out pretty aggressively to make sure I’m ready to be as good as I can be. I’ve run up hills, done 7-on-7 drills, gone to all different lengths of therapy — yoga, swimming, anything to make sure I’m ready for the season. I’m eager to get going.”
Phil Morelli, who assumed the starting role after Rogan’s injury, is slated as the No. 1 back, Caragher said. Rogan, Morelli and returner Matt Jelmini could present all sorts of matchup problems for opposing defenses — especially with three starting offensive linemen returning, including the versatile and talented Conrad Smith.
But it’s the defense that has Caragher excited. The team returns the all-league cornerback tandem of Gabe Derricks and Al-Rilwan Adeymei, plus linebackers Derek Martin, Loka Kanongataa and Kevin Dunn. Also back is defensive end Julian Strickland, who broke his right leg midway through last year. His was one of several injuries to key players last season.
“I think everyone did a great job pulling together considering how many people we lost,” Strickland said. “It was tough for a lot of us to watch from the sidelines. But I’m excited that everyone is back and healthy. I’m excited to see what this defense can do.”
Caragher said even though injuries are part of the game, he’d never seen so many players go down in one season.
“It was unbelievable,” Caragher said. “The positive spin is we had a lot of young players who played. We started 10 freshmen, including five true freshmen. That’s great experience for them and those are 10 guys coming back we weren’t counting on going in and now they have starting experience.”
As for the kicking game, only Campbell rated lower in the league than USD in field-goal percentage — and that’s because Campbell didn’t attempt any all season. USD was 5-for-13 on field goals.
“It’s something we’ve addressed,” Caragher said. “It was a serious issue. We want to make it a confident unit and hopefully we’ve shored it up.”
By Kevin Gemmell
San Diego Union-Tribune