Watertown-Mayer football coach Craig Johnson knows his team took a big step last year. After snapping a 21-game losing streak and finishing 3-6 on the year — and only a few key plays away from having a winning record — Johnson says his team took the step from feeling it had no chance to win most games to hoping it could win every night.
Now, Johnson wants his team to take another step this season. He doesn’t want his team simply hoping to win.
“I’m hoping our program has taken a step where they expect to win every time they go on the field instead of hoping they can win,” Johnson said.
On paper, the Royals suffered several major setbacks to graduation that would seem to be a big obstacle in improving further on last season’s turnaround. The team lost its starting quarterback (Adrian Eliason), its top wide receiver (Drew Wallstrom) and its top running back (Brandon Stein). Stein rushed for a team-high 387 yards on 87 carries, and Wallstrom had 23 catches for 523 yards and five touchdowns.
It seems like a lot of firepower to replace, but Johnson seems confident in his team’s ability to replace those playmakers. It will start at the quarterback position with Nick Tschida, who actually was in a battle with Eliason to win the quarterback job last year.
“Last year, in actuality, they were about dead even,” Johnson said. “I thought Eliason threw the ball a little better and Tschida ran the ball a little better. I feel real confident with Nick Tschida at the quarterback spot.”
He won’t have the luxury of throwing over the top to the speedy Walstrom this year as Eliason did last year, but as Johnson pointed out, he’ll have plenty of size at his disposal. Luke and Mark Sandquist, both 6-foot-4 or taller, will make big targets in the passing game, and Hunter Hulley, 6-foot-2 and a state qualifier in the high jump, will move out wide to the flanker spot this year. Mark Sandquist was second on the team with 13 catches for 170 yards last year.
“We can’t replace the speed of Walstrom,” Johnson said. “That’s a big challenge. Tschida can run pretty fast, but he can’t throw it to himself. But what we lost in that speed area, we’re making up in size. … The mantra in the passing game is make sure you get the ball up a little bit, and we’ll play jump ball.”
In the running game, the Royals may have lost Stein, but return plenty of experience with Joe Reinert. The senior halfback accumulated 295 yards on just 57 carries last year for an impressive 5.2 yards per carry average.
“Expect Joey to take a lot of carries,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how much his little 150-pound body will take. I’ve been talking to him about accepting the fact that maybe a 12-yard carry is good enough, and not exposing himself to unnecessary poundings.”
Johnson said Max Zitzloff and Austin Torres have also been solid in practice as the more bruising and bashing type running backs, and that Jesse Bushman will likely see time at running back as more of a quicker, faster back.
“We have some pretty good depth in the backfield; it’s just green,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the same of this year’s offensive line, which doesn’t have a returning starter among the group after all five seniors graduated last year. The most experienced is David Gallus, a senior who finished the year at tackle last year but will move to center this year. Expected to join him on the line are left tackle Jon Ernst, left guard Cody Wagner, right guard Nick Burns, and right tackle Brendan Weege.
“At the scrimmage, we had five new guys, but they’re all capable guys,” Johnson said, who emphasized that the offensive linemen would need to use toughness and attitude to overcome a general lack of size for the position.
Defensively, the team suffered a few key losses, most notably outside linebackers Stein — an all-conference player — and Brandon Leaf, an honorable-mention all-conference player who led the team with 77 tackles and two sacks. Johnson said he expects Bushman and Logan Cooper to step up and fill those spots, while Hulley and Luke Sandquist will likely man the defensive end spots.
The interior of the team’s defense returns pretty much in its entirety, with Weege and Justin Lawrence returning at the tackle spots and Ernst and Gallus rotating in. A rotation including Zitzloff (57 tackles last year), Torres (47 tackles) and Burns will once again man the inside backer spots.
Tschida (41 tackles) returns to once again play free safety, but both cornerback spots are open in the defensive backfield. Johnson said Brett Johnson, a sophomore, and Jaelen Keavy, a senior who hasn’t played since ninth grade, seem to have the nod going into the first game, but that there were several other players competing for those spots.
The Royals open up Thursday, Aug. 30, with a non-conference game at Rockford at 7 p.m. The Royals won’t jump into Minnesota River Conference action until they take on Jordan on the road on Friday, Sept. 7, and won’t play a home game until Friday, Sept. 14, when the Royals host Belle Plaine at 7 p.m.
Johnson said he expects that Belle Plaine team to be among the conference title contenders, and possibly the new Tri City United co-op (Montgomery-Lonsdale and Le Center) as well.
“I think this TCU team will be pretty good,” Johnson said. “They’re kind of an unknown. Montgomery had some good kids returning, and you combine them them with a traditionally rich football program, they could be pretty good. I think they’re going to be up there. I think Belle Plain will compete toward the top, and I hope we do. I think we’re in a position now where we have to set that as a goal where we compete at the top of the conference.”