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College football: Changing direction

Cougars begin spring drills and try to rebound after subpar 2010

Posted: May 23, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 23, 2011 1:55 a.m.

College of the Canyons head coach Garett Tujague leads a drill during spring practice on Tuesday on the COC campus. The Cougars finished 6-5 in 2010, unfamiliar results for a program that’s won 82 percent of its regular-season games since 2002.

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Garett Tujague has a lot on his plate.

It is perpetually third-and-long for the College of the Canyons head football coach as he labors to balance the needs of his players, his coaching staff, the school’s administration, the student body, the local community and his family.

The job is unrelenting and the hours are long, but the rewards are rich and abundant.

And while the process often seems never-ending, there is a starting point to the cycle — the annual rite known as spring drills.

“The most important thing we need to accomplish this spring is to be able to change direction as quickly as possible, getting from here to there with a lot of speed and a sense of urgency,” Tujague said.

He was referring to the physical act of players changing direction on the field.

However, it’s not too much of a stretch to view the coach’s statement as a metaphor for the bigger picture, especially after a 2010 campaign in which the Cougars finished 6-5 overall, failed to earn a state playoff berth and dropped three of their last four games, including a lopsided loss to Fullerton College in a season-ending consolation bowl game.

“Going into the year, we thought we were pretty darn good and had all the weapons we needed,” Tujague said. “Then two things happened — (California Community College Athletic Association officials) made an elitist conference, and we ran into some injury and depth issues. When seven or eight of your games are against legitimate, big-boy competition and you have to play guys the whole 60 minutes, those extra 20 or 40 shots on that right shoulder add up toward the end of the year.”

Even though the team won more games than it lost in 2010, by COC’s own standards, it was a down year. That’s because in the last nine seasons dating back to 2002, the program has compiled a regular-season record of 74-16 for the best winning percentage (82.2) of any community college in Southern California.

Tujague, now in his fifth year as head coach, has set his sights on a return to that level of dominance in 2011. To get there, it must begin at the quarterback position.

If the season were to start today, Tujague said he would give the football to returning sophomore Chris Rini, based largely on Rini’s knowledge of the offense.

Rini, 20, from Coral Shores High School in Tavernier, Fla., was the back-up to Justin Arias last season and took a lot of early reps. But Tujague said Rini lost playing time when the Cougars got into conference play.

“We felt like we were in every game and didn’t want to make a change,” he said.

Tujague characterized Rini as a leader with a good arm who can run the option game and escape with his feet.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 205-pound signal caller said he’s been working on reading defenses and developing communication with his offensive line, running backs and especially his wide receivers.

“I’m from the South, and quarterbacks down there are always talking,” Rini said. “I definitely try and be vocal and lead by example to get the whole team unified, pumped up, in the weight room, on campus, just in life when I see them. In practice, I’m always looking around, saying, ‘Don’t walk on this field, we don’t walk here, let’s work.’”

Currently, Brian Duboski and Tyler D’Amore are Rini’s competition for the starting quarterback role.

Duboski is a bounce-back from Bakersfield College. Tujague said the sophomore is put together like a middle linebacker and possesses a strong passing arm.

D’Amore went to high school in Tucson, Ariz., where he also played point guard on the basketball team.

“Tyler is a fierce competitor. Not arrogant, but he’s confident and he’s all about hard work,” Tujague said.

Working hard on the defensive side of the ball is a priority for Nick Oliva, a team leader and sophomore defensive end from Valencia High.

Oliva said he plans to use last season’s struggles as motivation as he prepares for the Sept. 3 season opener against Antelope Valley College at Cougar Stadium.

“I know that people are going to doubt us because of our 6-5 season and how we’ve lost a bunch of sophomores,” Oliva said. “But what they’re not considering is we’re on a hot seat right now, and we’re using that anger and frustration from a bad season to fuel us. Sure, we may have had a down year, but we’re going to come back and light it up.”

For his part, Tujague will measure this season’s success by how well he is able balance the elements of the school’s football program that he deems most important.

First, there is the more outwardly visible form of success — athletic scholarships. Last season in a so-called down year, 13 players landed Division I scholarships, including Arias, who is headed to Idaho State University.

Then there is the desire to win the National Division, Northern Conference title and return to the state playoffs.

Finally, there are the intangible aspects of the program like building character and instilling values. This is the part of the job that Tujague admits can often keep him up at night.

“On-the-field mistakes I can handle if they’re at full speed. I can live with that,” Tujague said. “Off-the-field mistakes are what worry me because this community is small and it loves its football, and this community expects its football players to be accountable and responsible.

“I want our players to be gentlemen off the field, and on the field I want them to be beasts — and that’s a fine line to walk.”

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