Complacency has been a subject of conversation within the College of the Canyons football program since November when the Cougars’ season came to a 6-4 finish after a 5-0 start.
Namely, coaches say the feeling isn’t welcome.
“We had guys who, when we were 5-0, they were completely satisfied to be 5-0,” said fourth-year COC coach Ted Iacenda. “… We talk about, don’t be satisfied. You can’t get complacent. Success has to be handled with responsibility. The second you stop improving or competing is the second you’re going to get beat.”
Iacenda has preached about the need to finish strong and the dangers of getting “too wrapped up in your press clippings.”
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Another factor in 2015’s 1-4 finish, though, was injuries to his 2016 team.
The Cougars ended last season with roughly 50 healthy players. They enter 2016 with 88, the most in Iacenda’s tenure.
“We have 88 uniforms, and we have 88 young men in those uniforms,” Iacenda said. “It’s nice.”
Three of the most prominent are returners Austin Davenport (a Saugus High graduate and inside linebacker), Sione Taufahema (a 320-pound nose guard) and Brodie Felkel (a 6-foot-6-inch defensive end).
The Cougars believe Taufahema will plug up opponents’ running games with regularity, Felkel will pressure quarterbacks off the edge, and Davenport will make the defensive calls to get everyone, including a deep secondary, in position.
COC’s defensive backs are headlined by returner Hayden Wright and newcomer Nolan Jackson.
“He’s physical and he’s fast,” Iacenda said of Jackson. “You’ll know when you watch him play, you’ll be like, ‘Wow, he comes to hit you.”
Hart grad David Wilder, Saugus grad Blake Austin and Valencia grad Tyree White are also expected to make impacts in the secondary.
Freshmen Dorian Gerald and Javon Brown will do the same on the defensive line.
“One yard on our defense is not acceptable, and our whole defense knows that,” Austin said. “(Our mindset is) there are absolutely no yards allowed when we’re on the field.”
The offensive line returns two starters — left tackle Tyler Bjorklund (Valencia) and guard/tackle Jesus Mota. Hart grad Ethan Quinn will start at center after grayshirting last season.
That group will aim to open holes for Leo Lambert III, a running back Iacenda believes is “special.”
Last year’s leading rusher, Kenny Torrence, suffered a lower body injury in the season finale and won’t play in 2016. He is expected back next year.
The quarterback situation is still up in the air with three freshmen competing to start: CJ Williams, Saugus grad Louis Eusebi and Tanner Darling.
Williams has the most quarterbacking experience, Eusebi is the best runner of the group and Darling does a little bit of everything as a dual threat, Iacenda said.
Williams and Eusebi are neck and neck, the coach said, with Darling “nipping at their heels.”
All three could see action in Saturday’s opener against Antelope Valley College.
“It’s very possible in my mind,” Iacenda said. “I could see scenarios where all three could get some reps. We’re going to play it by ear and see what happens. It very well could be that one or two play, but I see some scenarios where all three of them are getting snaps.”
There will be fresh faces in the receiving corps, too. The state’s leader in receiving yards per game last season, Nick Jones, left COC’s program this offseason with the intention of playing football at NCAA Division 2 Lindenwood University in Missouri in 2017.
COC newcomers Marquise Brown and LeBronze Allen will try to buoy that unit along with returner Chauncey Werah, a second-team All-National Division, Northern Conference selection in 2015. Two Hart grads are expected to start in the slot: Wes Fitzpatrick and Ethan Lazarek.
“It’s an exciting group,” Iacenda said of the receivers. “We think we have some dynamic freshmen, but they are freshmen, so it’s going to be interesting on Saturday night to see what we have.”
Saturday’s game at Cougar Stadium will kick off at 6 p.m., the time at which all five of COC’s home games will start this season.
The Cougars played their final three home games of 2015 at 1 p.m.
Iacenda said the early afternoon heat hurt attendance and, frankly, he wants the public to be witness to 2016’s strong start — and, hopefully, finish.
“My main concern here is this is community college football, and I want this community involved in College of the Canyons,” Iacenda said. “I want them out to support our games, and if 6 p.m. start times are what it takes to get them out there, I will (do that).”