Jason Galvin brings you a preview to the 2010 Cougar Football season. Photographed and edited by Brian Lewis, photos by Cory Rubin.
It’s a pain that still lingers; a burn that fuels the coaches and players. But the pain that remains in the returning coaches and players from a College of the Canyons football team that fell so short of its expectations has started to fade away. With the start of a new season less than a week away, the 2010 edition of the College of the Canyons Cougars are back on the field, practicing with a commitment and intensity not seen since the team’s heartbreaking loss to Mt. SAC in the 2008 Southern California Championship game.
This years team has about as much turnover as you can possibly get without dubbing it a “rebuilding” year, a term 4th year head coach Garett Tujague hates. Gone are several key parts of the coaching staff, including Tujague’s close friend and former offensive coordinator Don Fellows, who left to take a high school head coaching position in Michigan. Also gone is former Cougar defensive coordinator Bart Hansen. The later departure wasn’t exactly a mutual agreement. The team also has new starters at quarterback, both receiver spots, tight end, and all five offensive line positions.
On the outside, it would appear that a team that limped to a 6-5 record last year doesn’t have much of a chance to improve. But hopes are high on the practice field at COC. “We have a young, talented group that understands work ethic,” Tujague said. “ You’re always a little bit nervous, but were excited. There’s a lot of energy, and we’ve made some awesome additions on the coaching staff.”
The biggest question yet to be answered through spring and summer camp is who will start at quarterback for COC. Returning sophomore Justin Morales was considered the early leader in the clubhouse, but grey-shirt freshmen Cam Coon and Justin Arias have both made up ground. Arias in particular has thrived in recent weeks, and while the team remains non-committal heading into Saturdays season opener, it would appear to be his job to lose. Both Coon and Morales have struggled with leg injuries recently, but both played in the Blue and Gold scrimmage last Thursday evening.
Morales is a transfer from BCS school Idaho, where he redshirted. Last year, the undersized signal-caller completed 62% of his passes and had over 1,200 yards and 9 touchdowns as well, leading the team in all of those categories. Tujague thinks all of his quarterbacks are capable, and it’s just a matter of one separating himself from the pack. “We’re really excited about the quarterback position. Three guys are competing for the job, and it’s a fine tune everyday at the end of practice ranking them.”
The Cougars defense will also be under the microscope early, with former COC linebacker Dan Corbet taking over as the defensive coordinator. Corbet has never had a coordinating job, but he has helped coach multiple positions in recent seasons, and he also serves as an assistant strength and conditioning coach. The team’s defense should be even aggressive than in years past, with Tujague comparing their style to the video game Missile Command.
The player that has caught everyone’s eye this summer is Justin Cudworth. Cudworth was a linebacker last season, but has been moved to a roving strong safety position this year, where he has drawn comparison to former University of Southern California safety Taylor Mays for his ability to find the ball and put a big hit on the ball-carrier. Cudworth has settled in nicely to his new position at safety, and while he knows the offense may struggle early, he knows the defense will be able to carry the Cougars early.
“I spent all spring and summer at strong safety, and the defensive backfield is working really well. Were all ready to step up, we have a pretty young offense, but defensively we will be able to more than hold our own,” said the former Agoura High standout.
Other Cougars who have stepped up on defense include sophomore linebacker Gary Johnson and freshman defensive back Josh Irvin, a player Tujague specifically pointed out as impressing this summer. On offense, starting running back and Santa Clarita native Ryan Zirbel has stayed healthy and is looking to lead the way, and he is going to need to be creative while the offensive line meshes together early. Receiver Cameron Bailey has emerged from the shadows to take over the leading receiver role. After a year on the bench in 2009, Bailey has served as the spark plug to the Cougars passing game this summer. He says its all a result of hard work. “I think I’m ready. I worked hard, and coaches think I’ve been the most improved player on the team this year. I feel like I deserve it.”
The Cougars are faced with the toughest schedule in school history this year. This Saturday they will travel to Antelope Valley, where the aforementioned Hanson landed as the team’s new defensive coordinator. In week two, a showdown looms with the always-powerful Mt. San Antonio College, and COC also has to battle Allen Hancock, Bakersfield, Grossmont and El Camino this year. While many consider the Cougars position as a possible league underdog as a slap in the face, the Tujague wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like the fact that nobody knows who we are. Were the most underrated team in the conference, and I love it, because nothing in life ends where it started.”