Gabe Matthews rarely left the football field during South Salem’s games last fall.
Now he’ll be touching the ball on every offensive play.
The 6-foot-2 junior moves back to his natural position of quarterback from receiver – and stops playing defense – as he transitions to being the lynchpin of the Saxons’ offensive attack this season.
“He did everything, and we’re having a hard time replacing him defensively,” South Salem coach Scott DuFault said. “That’s one of the things that moving him to quarterback creates in terms of a problem, but the gains we’re going to get out of him being there are going to be awesome.
“He’s just a mature athlete. He’s grown as a leader, and he can really throw the football. We’re really excited about that piece.”
Matthews has been a varsity player in every sport – football, basketball and baseball – since his freshman year so playing in big-pressure games is nothing new for him.
Buthe’s not going to miss playing defense on the football field when South Salem opens the season at 7 p.m. by hosting McKay, though he thinks that experience will be a benefit.
“I think it helped with my toughness, probably, defensively making tackles and running around,” said Matthews, also the team’s kicker and punter. “Baseball, basketball, I played varsity, too, so it’s kind of the same atmosphere in a sense, but it’s kind of tougher out here. I’m ready to go.”
Protecting Matthews will be a solid mix of returners and up-and-comers.
On the offensive line there are two returning starting seniors, left tackle Dakota Conover and right guard Benny Ham-Marsh.
Joining them are less-experienced junior Vincent Villareal at left guard, sophomore center Tyler Coates and junior right tackle Nathan Freshour.
“Honestly I think it’s the best group since I’ve been here at South,” Conover said. “Probably my whole life actually as far as working together and being a close-knit group.”
But with Matthews moving back to quarterback, the receiver position is a question area.
A promising junior class of receivers including 6-foot-3 Joe Carey, Gibson Hohnberg, Tony Phong and Carrter Dorn will provide targets and seniors Nick Phoenix and Jacob Ramos round out a big group of candidates vying to catch the ball.
“We have five catches coming back from last year,” DuFault said. “Having said that, our junior class is pretty good, and we have some senior kids we think could make some plays.”
South Salem has been a school that has been known for producing standout running backs over the past decade, but DuFault thinks the position will be handled by a committee this year rather than having a 1,000 yard rusher.
“I think we have two really good running backs, we have Jack Gries and Zedric Price,” said senior linebacker Chris Toomb. “They’re kind of different styles. Zedric is more of an elusive running back and Jack is more of a go up the middle and break several tackles.
“I think it’s good that we have both to see what fits our offense best.”
The defensive front seven has the most experience on the team with starters returning in Omar Hidalgo and Romie Ezell and linebackers in Gries, Davis Carter, Ian Hughes and Toombs.
“Defensively up front me and Romie, we did play a lot. We do have a junior this year, Luke, he did play for us last year, but those were all question marks. But this year we’ve had to step up and be the guys up there.
“We got Davis and Jack in the linebacker positions and we’re opening up the holes for them and if they’re free they’re going to be dangerous this year.”
In the defensive backfield, Hohnberg is the only returning starter with Matthews moving to quarterback.
Most of the same guys who will play receiver – Carey, Ramos, Dorn and Phong – will play in the secondary.
South Salem has the longest-tenured coaching staff in the Greater Valley Conference.
“We just trust what they’re teaching us because coach (Terry) Haugen and coach DuFault, the two guys I’ve been working with, you just trust what they’re teaching you, and most of the time it’s spot on every single time,” senior linebacker/running back Jack Gries said.
South Salem is being picked by most to place in the middle of the new league.
Their goal is to exceed those expectations.
“Everybody says that South is always the underdog and we don’t have all the athletes,” Conover said. “They always say we’re unknowns, but this is the best I’ve seen since we’ve been here and I think we work really well together and I’m confident.”
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6701 or follow at twitter.com/bpoehler
Coach: Scott DuFault, 15th year
Offensive coordinator: Chris Short
Defensive coordinator: DuFault
2013 record: 4-6 overall, 2-3 Central Valley Conference, lost in first round of 6A state playoffs
Sept. 5 vs. McKay, 7 p.m.
Sept. 12 vs. McMinnville, 7 p.m.
Sept. 19 at Forest Grove, 7 p.m.
Sept. 26 vs. West Salem, 7 p.m.
Oct. 3 at Milwaukie, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 at Sprague, 7 p.m.
Oct. 17 vs. North Salem, 7 p.m.
Oct. 24 at McNary, 7 p.m.
Oct. 31 vs. West Albany, 7 p.m.
Base offense: Pro-I
Base defense: 3-4
Starters returning: Four on offense, seven on defense
Gabe Matthews, jr., QB: A two-way starter as a sophomore, he moves from receiver, where he caught 16 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns, under center and also will continue to be the team’s kicker and punter.
Benny Ham-Marsh, sr., OL/DL: An honorable mention all-league at guard, he is one of two returning starters up front.
Davis Carter, jr., RB/LB: A returning starter at middle linebacker, he also rushed for two touchdowns primarily as a short-yardage back as a sophomore.
Dakota Conover, sr., OL/DL: The returning starter at left tackle, he put on 30 pounds for this season.
Omar Hidalgo, sr., OL/DL: The returning starter at defensive tackle where he had two sacks as a junior.
Jack Gries, sr., RB/LB: One of the fastest players on the team, he is a returning starter on defense and will be one of the primary ball carriers.
Gibson Hohberg, jr., WR/DB: A returning starter at safety, he moves from running back on offense and will spend time at receiver this season.
Romie Ezell, sr., OL/DL: Recorded three sacks as a starter at defensive end as a junior.
Chris Toomb, sr., TE/LB: A returning defensive starter.
Ian Hughes, sr., WR/LB: A returning starter at outside linebacker, where he had two sacks last year.
Outlook: The Saxons are an intriguing team with a promising offensive line and one of the best athletes in the league in Matthews moving under center. South Salem will have to rely on its defense early in the season while the offense gets Friday night game experience.