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La Grande’s Tyson Wicklander reels in a pass during an afternoon practice. Wicklander will see time at free saftey this season, too. The senior will be a big part of the fast-paced offense used by the Tigers this upcoming season. (PAUL HARDER/The Observer)
The La Grande football program faced a big question as soon as the final horn sounded after a 70-6 loss to rival Baker City in the final game of the season — who would be at the helm next season. Kenny Mace took over the program with about to week to prepare last year following an exit by Dave Collinsworth. The question was answered, and the players liked what they heard.
“(Coach) Mace was put into a tough position last year,” said Tyson Wicklander. “Through my four years I’ve had three different head coaches. Finally I get to keep one for the second year.
“It’s made the transition into summer practice much easier. We know a lot of what we’re going to be doing, but adding a few things too.”
The excitedness of Mace coming back wasn’t one sided. The first-year head coach was itching to come back for another season.
“I was really hopeful that I’d be back again,” Mace said. “It would have been okay if I didn’t get it. I would have been thankful for the experience, but I want to build something here with this program.”
Mace, an Oregon State fan, did say there will be a new-look offense on the field. The up-tempo offense seen in Eugene with the Oregon Ducks will make its way across the Blue Mountains to Community Stadium this season.
“It’s tough because I’m a Beavers fan,” Mace said. “But, as coaches we had to look at the roster we have and decide what’s going to work best. We have a quick offensive line, but they’re not very big. We are going to put them in the best position we can to succeed.
“The kids have really bought into the uptempo game. Even with practice they know we’re trying to keep that pace up. They give everything they have, because they know if they do practice will get done quicker. We took that aspect of what Chip Kelly did at Oregon, too. If the reps are good we’ll keep it short.”
Offensively, the key starts where it does for nearly every football team — behind center. Brandon Dahl will be under center again this season.
“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on me,” Dahl said. “The whole team is counting on me to get stuff right because the offense we’re running relies a lot on the quarterback reading a lot of stuff. We want to snap the ball every 12 seconds. It’s going to be a challenge but I think we can do it.”
The offense has been a huge focus for the Tigers during the two-a-day practices. Not just the new offensive wrinkles, but to get the ball where it needs to go.
“We have to score more this year,” Mace said. “We all know that. The ball needs to get into the end zone. We’ve spent a lot of time during practice on blocking. If you can block guys, you’re going to have a place to run the football. We just need to get more consistent being physical on the outside.
“Brandon has grown by leaps and bounds. He’s not the same player. His maturity is showing so far through practices, and the leadership is amazing. He’s got a good supporting cast and he’s ready to see what they all can do together.”
Dahl will like the new additions to the offense this season, a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers in Isaiah and Alec Cranford. Mace said a surprise addition to the offense is first-year player Brandon Cederholm, a senior.
“Our offensive line is coming along,” Mace said. “I like the improvements that I’ve seen.
“Every team is going to key on Brandon and Tyson. So we just need other guys to make plays and I think they will.”
Running the ball this season will be J.C. Rodgers, Micah Fuller and Ray Jimenez.
On the other side of the ball, La Grande is hoping to put pressure on the other team with blitzes and strong play from the defense line. The Tigers are making the move to a 3-4 defense this season. A move Mace said will get more of his athletes on the field.
“We want to swarm the ball,” Mace said. “We’re working on a new base defense, and it’s getting better each day. I think with the shape that our guys will be in that it will happen. Our defensive line is the strength of our team.
The Cranford twins and Chase Huffman will start in the defensive trench. We have great back-ups with Jake Comfort is a solid. I think with our starting three we’ll keep five guys occupied which will open things up for our linebackers.”
Looking across the Greater Oregon League, Mace thinks it’s going to be a good battle. Baker will be looking to defend its league and state title this season. Ontario went 9-3 overall and 2-1 in GOL play, while Mac-Hi finished 2-5 on the season and 1-2 in league play.
La Grande will open the season Sept. 6 on the road against Nysaa. Last season, the Tigers lost the season opener to the Bulldogs 58-14.