One look at defensive end Mariano Garza this late summer reflects what the Jags feel in their gut right now about the upcoming football season.

They’re serious, they worked their tails off in the summer, and they’re ready to prove a whole bunch of people dead wrong.

Once the most promising defensive lineman on the roster as a sophomore, Garza has been in and out of the limelight for Econ since. But now he has trimmed down to 225, muscled up, and appears to be poised for the breakout season he seemed a cinch to achieve in the past.

“I think he decided that since this is his senior year, it was time to get after it,” said Coach Oscar Salinas of the end who has increased his quickness and has always been one of the strongest kids in the weight room. “He is set to explode this year, and I think he will be one of the leaders of our defense.”

The re-emergence of Garza is an illustration of the Jag philosophy in 2009, after they suffered through a miserable 2-8 campaign a year ago. Injuries were the main culprit, plus grade losses, but this time around, Salinas thinks that his squad has the right mentality.

“We’ve sort of gone back to the basics,” said the only coach Econ has ever had since the school’s inception in 2000. “Last year was just bad, and it got worse every week. We started getting on the kids more and they got down about it. But this year, we have stressed to them that they need to have fun out there.

“This program has always been about getting after it and enjoying football. And this year we have that spirit back, and everyone is excited to see how we can do. On the other hand, we’ve also told the guys not to be talking too much about how good we are. We know we’re good, but we have to prove it. Everyone can say they’re good right now, you know what I mean?”

If the Jags are going to compete for their first playoff spot since 2003, the defense is going to carry them in the early going. With Garza at one end and All-District pick Pedro Alvarado at the other, plus a super tackle duo of quick Roger Garza and tough Matthew Mariscal (converted from offense), the front four is looking like the Wrecking Crew of old.

And if runners get past that awesome foursome, look out for superb junior linebacker Victor Salinas, who is one of the best in the Valley. Salinas is a savvy, smart kid who is a great tackler.

“The guy is just an animal,” said Salinas, adding that the LB crew has depth with Luis Huerta and a host of other could-bes in the wings. He noted that even though the front seven is getting a lot of attention so far, the secondary could be as good.

Back deep, look for a pair of outstanding athletes to make plays, in Nelson Hampton at corner and newcomer Andrew Fox. The former is also a game-breaking receiver while the latter, a transfer from football factory Miami Central High, could be the sleeper of the year in 31-5A.

“I think Andrew is going to turn some heads, and fast,” said Salinas, of the track-fast senior who can come up and make devastating licks. The Jags also return Aaron Garcia at a corner, a clever veteran who makes up for lack of size with smarts and quickness.

The other wild card on defense is the legendary Freddy Hernandez, who takes over as defensive coordinator from Cruz Gaytan, who went to Rio Grande City in the offseason. Hernandez, long recognized as a miracle worker with magical motivational skills, was in rare form as training camp developed, with his upbeat, vocal style.

“Historically, Coach Hernandez has turned out great defenses and we are happy to have him in board,” said Salinas of the fiery Hernandez, who will not hesitate to read his charges the riot act. He comes to the team from a fine stint under Bruce Bush at Pharr North, and in the early going had everyone on his toes learning new terminology and a different look on the defensive side of the ball.

THE KEY TO THE DRIVE

So it looks like the sky is the limit for Econ on defense, and if the offense can come of age in time, the Jags could be the surprise of the league in 2009.

With Hampton and Fox running both ways as receivers along with rangy Kasey Martinez, and a healthy Gary Rodriguez at tailback, the team should be able to move the ball.

“We’re going back to the multiple I, which we have run in the past,” said Salinas, adding that the Jags have the personnel to make that hard-running set work. “We have gone spread in the past, but I think we are better suited to grinding it out, playing field position. Our quarterbacks, we won’t ask them to win games for us, just to control things on long drives.”

Right now, junior Edgar Cuevas and senior Rudy Villarreal are getting the majority of the snaps behind center. Villarreal seems to have the early edge, but Cuevas is a tall passer who showed some good check-off skills in camp during the first two weeks.

The slashing Rodriguez underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason but will be 100 percent for the season. He’ll join rugged fullback Rey Trevino in the backfield, as the Jags look to pound the ball behind an offensive line that should be better in 2009.

The best hogs this year are physically impressive tackle Pedro Ornelas, who came on strong as his junior season progressed, and strongman tackle Aurelio Garza, with Randy Mariscal, Matthew’s brother, looking good at a guard slot. Taking over for long-time All-League center Mike Santos is Mike Garza, brother of DT Roger, and Salinas says he is going to be a good one.

In all, the spirit is high in Jag camp this summer, and as the team looks to a Saturday scrimmage at Cats Stadium against Brownsville Hanna, Salinas is all smiles.

“We’re all ready to get after it, and we think that this is going to be our year,” he said. “We’ve put last year behind us and we’re feeling pretty confident that we can make some noise in the race this time.”