1. A DEFINITIVE DEFENSE
Tulare Western’s calling card under head coach Ryan Rocha, who’s entering his third year, is outstanding defensive play. In the Mustangs’ 14 wins with Rocha as head coach, they’ve limited teams to 20 or less points 12 times, including six foes to nine points or less.
Mustangs should have one of the better defenses in the East Yosemite League again.
Tulare Western has a pair of solid foundation pieces to this year’s defensive unit in senior nose guard Andy Acosta and senior outside linebacker Elijah Alonzo, both earned all-EYL first-team honors in 2014. Joining Acosta on the defensive line is senior defensive tackle Anthony Morgan, a 2014 all-EYL second-team pick.
Mustangs are switching from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 based on the team’s quality depth at linebacker. Secondary has two all-EYL-caliber players in junior cornerback L.J. Early and senior strong safety Rudy Vasquez.
2. RISE OF THE YOUNG GUNS
Tulare Western is introducing eight sophomores to the roster, and two of them figure to be integral pieces to the offensive game plan — running backs David Alcantar and Mason Bernardo. Bernardo earned a late-season promotion to the varsity team last season, and had a game-high 76 yards rushing and a touchdown in a 20-0 win over Monache. Alcantar was a top running back on last year’s 9-1 Tulare Western team that won the EYL freshman championship.
“We’re going to be a little more dynamic running the ball,” Rocha said. “We’ve got young, talented running backs, and we have a full set of 10 [offensive] linemen. I really like our depth on the line.”
Another projected sophomore in the Mustang starting lineup is receiver DeeAndre Hulett Jr., son of former COS basketball star DeeAndre Hulett, a 2000 second-round pick of the Toronto Raptors out of COS.
3. EFFECTIVE QUARTERBACK PLAY
Tulare Western’s offensive surge over the last two seasons was tied directly to the emergence of quarterback Kobe Portillo, a 2014 all-EYL first-team pick who graduated in June.
Not fair to expect similar production from the new starter — Portillo threw for over 3,700 yards to go with 30 TDs passes in two years — but the Mustangs need reliable efficiency from the new starter.
Junior Robert Ruiz will have the first shot at earning the starting job. Andre Aguilar, a transfer from Mission Oak, will have to sit out the first month because of transfer rules. Aguilar was a stalwart quarterback on Mission Oak’s junior varsity team last season. If Ruiz wins the starting job, Rocha said Aguilar’s athleticism will dictate that he receives significant playing time somewhere on the field.
4. CATCH A STAR
If Tulare Western wants to contend for an EYL championship this season, it needs to do something about curbing the production of the league’s top two stars — Tulare Union senior running back Romello Harris, the 2014 Times-Delta/Advance-Register Bob Mathias Award winner, and Porterville senior running back Isaiah Jones.
The Mustangs couldn’t control Harris and Jones last year, and it led to their two league losses.
Jones rushed for 378 yards and five touchdowns in the Panthers’ 49-28 win over Tulare Western. Harris had 239 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries in the Redskins’ 33-6 Bell Game win over the Mustangs.
This is where the Mustangs’ switch to a 3-4 alignment could pay dividends. With more athleticism on the perimeter, Tulare Western has a better chance to limit the big plays — Jones had touchdowns runs of 81 and 69 yards against the Mustangs.
5. MAKE A NON-LEAGUE STATEMENT
A primary reason why Tulare Western earned the No. 1 seed to the 2013 Division III playoff bracket, and was tabbed as the No. 4 seed in last year’s Division III bracket was its prowess in non-league games — 7-3 in two years under Rocha. Mustangs have a couple of difficult tests this year with Golden West, the 2014 Sid Hosking Trophy winner (Visalia city champion), and Madera, the 2014 Division III runner-up. Key game is the home contest against Madera. If the Mustangs win, it should bode well for all local Division III teams.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
QB: Robert Ruiz (6-0, 165, Jr.)
RB: Mason Bernardo (5-5, 150, Soph.)
FB: Caleb Salazar (5-9, 200, Sr.)
WR: Jesse Macias (5-11, 160, Sr.)
WR: Josh Portillo (5-10, 150, Jr.)
WR: DeeAndre Hulett (6-1, 135, Soph.)
LT: Justin Aguiar (6-1, 275, Sr.)
LG: Matthew McClure (6-1, 275, Sr.)
C: Doug Ybarra (5-9, 225, Jr.)
RG: Darian Cardenas (6-0, 250, Sr.)
RT: Mario Diaz (6-1, 225, Jr.)
DE: Elijah Freeman (6-1, 205, Sr.)
DL: Andy Acosta (5-10, 250, Sr.)
DL: Anthony Morgan (6-0, 240, Sr.)
LB: Elijah Alonzo (5-10, 200, Sr.)
LB: Andrew Trevino (5-10, 185, Jr.)
LB: Michael Salas (5-9, 165, Sr.)
LB: Julio Valencia (6-1, 170, Sr.)
CB: L.J. Early (5-9, 150, Jr.)
CB: Ryan Tucker (5-9 150, Soph.)
SS: Rudy Vasquez (5-10, 175, Sr.)
FS: Hector Ruvalcaba (5-10, 165, Jr.)
Bold denotes returning starter