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COC: Street’s cred

Team ranked No. 1 juco club by ‘Street & Smith’s 2008 College Football Yearbook’

Posted: September 4, 2008 10:29 p.m.
Updated: November 6, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The College of the Canyons defense puts a hurting on an L.A. Pierce College running back during a recent scrimmage. The Cougars are currently ranked as the top community college program in the country in the Street & Smith's 2008 College Football Yearbook.

 

As preseason predictions go, this one's a doozie.

For better or worse, Street & Smith's Sporting News College Football 2008 Yearbook has named College of the Canyons the preseason No. 1 community college team in the nation.

It's the mother of all lofty expectations as the Cougars get set to open the 2008 campaign Saturday night at Antelope Valley College.

But it's also just one magazine's opinion, and COC head coach Garett Tujague isn't buying in.

"I think it's an incredible statement to my staff, to my players, to what we do here at College of the Canyons - just to be recognized in that arena is awesome," Tujague said. "But it's preseason, and it means absolutely nothing. Nothing in life's where you start, it's where you finish, and what you learn along the way."

No doubt the venerable publication drew its conclusion, in large part, because of COC's enduring reputation. The Cougars have enjoyed abundant success ever since the football program was resurrected in 1998, and that reputation was crystallized in 2004 with the team's state and national championship.

However, Tujague, an 11-year veteran of the program who is entering his second season as head coach, believes that pollsters put heavy emphasis on last year's 9-3 record and deep postseason run - achieved by a team populated by first-year players at key positions.

Last year's fledgling freshmen are now this year's experienced sophomores.

"This season we have that core nucleus, with so many guys coming back with that much experience, and I think those are things people who make up those rankings look at," Tujague said.

Ultimately, the Cougars will play out their schedule not in some corporate boardroom, but between the lines in weekly, 60-minute slugfests - and it all starts at the quarterback position.

COC's coaching staff has historically favored a two-signal-caller game plan, where the starter dominates with his arm and the backup supplements with his legs. That philosophy will continue this season with a pair of sophomores - starter Brad McClellan and backup Joey Frias.

At 6 feet 4 inches and 210 pounds, McClellan, a 20-year-old native of Deerfield Beach, Fla., is known for his accurate arm, grace under pressure and sound decision-making.

By contrast, Frias, 23, who hails from El Paso, Texas, and is expected to see ample playing time, has a reputation as a fearlessly fleet-footed and elusive ball carrier with an uncanny ability to read the defense.

In 2007, Frias and McClellan were understudies to then-sophomore Andrew Miramontes, the Western State Conference's leading passer through the first six games of the year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Frias took over from there until he broke his collarbone early in the team's heartbreaking loss to Bakersfield College in the regular-season finale.

Then in what amounted to an open tryout, McClellan, a third-string grayshirt freshman at the time, took the reins and nearly led the Cougars to a victory that would have given them the conference title.

"Things go in strange ways sometimes. I went from feeling like I didn't have any effect on the team, to being the guy," McClellan said. "I learned to always be prepared and not takes things for granted, work hard from beginning to end, pedal to the metal."

Speedy wide receiver Hayo Carpenter, a unanimous First-Team All-Conference selection last season, is expected to be McClellan's primary target.

Rounding out the receiving corps are Taveon Burke, Jason Engelberg (Valencia High), Nate Jones, Jovan Leacock and Mario Wright (Saugus).

Running back Fred Winborn returns to the Cougar backfield and will likely give opposing defenses plenty to worry about. Winborn, a significant weapon in the Cougar arsenal in 2007, was named a WSC Co-Offensive Player of the Year.

Clearing the path again for Winborn will be 6-foot-1, 240-pound sophomore fullback Sean Quinn, known for his toughness, durability and ball security. Like last season, Quinn has a clear idea of how he'll be spending his Saturday nights.

"Everybody has their role on the team," Quinn said. "Mine is to do the bashing."

Reserve running backs Anthony Dawkins and B.J. Iverson both have a chance to be on the field.
Protecting the crown jewels is an offensive line Tujague calls the hardest-working position group on the team. That group is comprised of grayshirt freshman Louiszell Alexander and returning sophomores Ralph Curiel, Joe Evinger, Shawn Johnson and Joe Thompson.

On the defensive side, Tujague said the team is deepest at linebacker, led by Makana Atisanoe, Joey Guarascio, Steven Gourley, Kris Martin and Eric Wells. The coach said the emphasis at that position has been in an area where the team has struggled over the past couple of seasons - defending against the pass.

The young defensive line will be anchored by Jonathan Hollins, Marquis Jackson and Dejaun Yates.
In the secondary, the team will rely on Kenny Brown, Arron Fisher, Nate Francisco and Eddie Smith (Saugus).

Special teams, especially the kicking game, have been a perennial problem - one that Tujague took upon himself to address in 2008.

"Coach Tujague is the special teams coordinator," Tujague said. "I'm not taking anything away from anybody who's done it in the past ... I don't know if we're going to do too much, but we're going to be good at what we choose to do and let our kickers do what they do best."

Valencia grad Ricky Drake, with a reported 50-yard field goal range, will handle placekicking chores. Tyler Watson, who Tujague said was "absolutely drilling the ball" over the summer, is the team's punter.

In the offseason, the Southern California Football Coaches Association, seeking to create a more competitive balance in the region, selectively realigned the conferences by creating the National and American divisions, with three conferences in the National and two in the American.

"I think it gives programs that aren't as fortunate as ours a chance to compete, a chance for that Cinderella story we all love," Tujague said. "And it's a chance for the big boys to beat each other up and try and stay healthy."

The upshot is the Western State Conference now ceases to exist. In its place, the big boys of Allan Hancock, Bakersfield, Glendale, Moorpark, Pasadena and Ventura will battle the Cougars for the National Division, Northern Conference crown.

Another difference from past seasons is the unusually high number of Santa Clarita Valley athletes in the program - 31. Tujague attributes the increase to a renewed effort on the part of his staff to rebuild that relationship and recruit locally.

"It is very important to me that this football team represents this valley," Tujague said. "Does it 100 percent? No, because if you look at our schedule, we have to have the best players in order to compete in that schedule. I can do that with this valley, but I don't get everyone from this valley, so when a position is short, we've got to go find players."

So, with the puzzle pieces falling together at the dawn of a new season, Tujague believes the biggest unknown is how his team will handle adversity.

"We're going to play hard every down, we're going to give absolute effort and we're going to have a great attitude going in," he said. "The question is ... what are they going to do when their backs are up against the wall and it's an environment that's not controlled?"

Then there's the issue of that pesky preseason No. 1 national ranking and the effect it might have on the Cougars as they crack the seal on the 2008 campaign.

COC free safety Anthony Luna put it into perspective by drawing on some vintage Tujague.

"It doesn't matter where you start, it's where you finish - in anything, not just with football, but in school, in your job, in life," said the Hart High grad. "The ranking? It's totally goofy. It doesn't mean anything. If it were totally true, I'd already be sitting here having this conversation with a ring on my finger."

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