The more one gets to hear John Campbell talk, the more one understands that like all fine coaches will do, he sees things from an enlightened perspective borne from many years riding these rapids.
For instance, when it was suggested that his highly successful Vela team will be in the sights of all coming foes in 2019, he demurred. Be the best, beat the best, etc. Not so much.
“We tend not to think about it like that,” said Campbell, heading into his third year as head honcho with a 24-2 record in tow. “We know we bring back a number of kids who got good experience for us last year, especially later in the season. And yet, each team is different, it finds its own identity, after a while. We know that every team wants to win, just like we do. So they’ll all be ready for us.”
To that end, Campbell noted that pressure is generally a self-imposed concept, and that he doesn’t feel any.
“We’re just going to get to work on non-district,” he suggested. “We try to schedule the toughest games we can get; we want to win every one of them but it’s more about development, getting ready to defend a district title. The coaches, and players too for that matter, we have the responsibility to build the next group and get ready to compete.
“We build upon what we have done in the past but there is a balance there, between tradition and what comes next.”
The coach, who brings back 11 starters from the 12-1 club of 2018, said this balance extends all across the program.
“You have to let the next wave of kids emerge, and it comes in cycles,” he explained. “Letting the kids be who they will be, in the locker room, with play-calling, everything. Our key as coaches is to identify what we have, what they do, and enhance that. So while there will be similarities to last year, there will be differences, and that is what makes it fun and challenging as a staff and as a team.”
Truth be told, the SaberCats look stacked enough to make a run at defending their crown, with some fine offensive lineman and a promising if unfamiliar defensive group.
“We look at our front seven on defense and it’s sort of similar to last year with the O-line,” he offered. “Lot of potential but we just had to work and develop. Now the O-line is looking solid, we’re pleased with them, and the D-line is in the mode of development.”
Further, Campbell said that while replacing three-year starters Ian Ochoa and Luis Gutierrez at inside linebacker is a chore, he likes the looks of the holdovers.
“Thing is, defenses have to be fast, they have to be able to run,” he said. “So we may not have the same body types at linebacker that we did – big, strong kids – but we will probably be more athletic, and that goes for the defense as a whole.”
With defenses going smaller and faster in response to the advent of the spread offense of the past generation, the Vela coach thinks he has the crew that can do what it takes to be excellent, after last year’s unit was the program’s all-time best by most readings.
“You take a look at some old games from way back, and the players are different looking, they play different football,” he commented, noting the change at defensive tackle, to quicker, lighter kids, for one example. “It’s closer to basketball in pads these days, like playing the middle infield in baseball or offense/defense in basketball. You have to be able to run, there’s a lot of space to cover these days.”
That leads into the question of summer training. After Vela finished spring, the coaches and kids cycled into what comes next. In the ancient times, that meant building bulk and getting big, in order to overpower opposing teams at the line of scrimmage. But in today’s dynamic, spread-out version, the training has changed to fit the field action.
“We try to work on strength in terms of staying healthy, getting fit, not so much on just bench press or arm-wrestling contests,” Campbell laughed. “That part of the game has changed too, the weight-lifting is one thing but we always focus on agility, run and jump, and quickness because when the games come, the kids are going to need to be fast. Especially when it comes to the playoffs, the deeper you get, the more speed you will need.”
NOTES: As for personnel coming out of the spring, Campbell has high hopes for Kevin Rojas, who will step into a key role at receiver, as will sophomore Justin Vega. The coach is high on both those talented catchers. And on that O-line, he expects Ronnie Garza, a 6-6, 270-pound junior, to contribute up front. Playmaker Matthew Brulloths is the most experienced linebacker, with Erik Arguello and Ryan Rodriguez (Nico’s little brother) also looking like keepers. Chris Ramos and Eddie Salinas are D-line guys who logged significant time last year.