The fast approaching football season of 2015 may very well prove to be the most important and defining in the history of Escondido Charter High School.
Not only are the White Tigers looking for a dramatic bounce back from last year’s disappointing 2 and 8 campaign but there is something even more significant at stake. The time has come for EC to throw off the shackles of low expectations from the outside and start building the foundation of a consistently competitive program that wins with regularity.
Many of the necessary pieces seem to be in place for just such a transformation. To begin with, in the person of Mark Carlson, EC has a kinetic and insightful young coach who seems well suited for the task of creating a winning culture, both now and in the future. Coach Carlson also appears to, at a most propitious time, have the right mix of players capable of effecting monumental change, not only on the scoreboard but in the locker room as well.
This year’s EC squad is comprised of hungry and committed gridders who have tired of losing and are looking to establish a high standard as their enduring legacy. A sense of great expectation is in the air. The vibe surrounding the team is that positive change is in the offing. For much of the recent past, the White Tigers were too often perceived as prey. This season they intend to be more the hunter. Their collective mindset shouts ‘we will no longer be thought of as an afterthought!’ Their aim is to be a constant and viable force on the field.
Every indication is that EC has the wherewithal to put to use the painful lessons that were learned during the travails of the 2014 campaign. Bouts of offensive sluggishness, inconsistency with fundamentals and the tendency to unravel in tight games were among the prime reasons the White Tigers showed little teeth while losing their first eight games last year. But to its credit, EC never quit and turned the tide late in the season. The dogged White Tigers managed to get off the mat and finished with a flurry, winning their final two games handily versus Army-Navy and Foothills Christian.
Not only did those victories provide some badly needed validation but they also created a taste for success and a springboard of sorts. Juiced and encouraged by those welcomed wins, a sense of belief began to germinate among the players and, beginning in January ‘15, they attacked their off-season workouts with a vengeance. A palpable commitment and motivation was manifesting itself and Carlson was duly impressed by the dedication his charges were demonstrating. The coach felt the stirrings of perhaps something special.
And if something special does indeed take place, it will be Carlson who’ll lead the way. Looking younger than his 33 years and in his third season as head man at EC, Carlson possesses some serious street cred. While a junior safety at the Air Force Academy he clearly showed his stuff by pacing the Falcons in tackles. The following season, while dealing with the effects of a torn MCL, he earned recognition as MVP of the special teams.
Carlson, with closely cropped hair, an intense countenance and a body that appears rock solid, continues to reek of athleticism. He still looks like he could deliver quite a blow. Shake his hand and the grip gets your attention. His eyes are alert and penetrating. His talk is direct. He is the consummate straight shooter. No pretense here.
But above of all else, this is a coach who brings with him an undeniable energy and enthusiasm to the job of teaching and developing young football players. His passion for the game is infectious. It’s almost impossible to be around him and not get fired up. The man is clearly gung-ho. He can get you pumped to the max. Carlson’s the type that you’d follow anywhere. A coach for whom you’d run through a wall. Hell, even this writer found himself wishing he could turn back the clock so that he might be able to suit up for this dynamo. Damn! Put me in coach; I’m ready to play.
On the field, while conducting practice, Carlson is a presence, one who conveys authority but, at the same time, remains relatable and approachable. The respect he engenders from both his assistant coaches and the players is conspicuous. There is no doubt who’s in control and who’s running the show. The confidence and belief that othershave in him is the sort of thing that can surely elevate the program at EC and get it to where it wants to go. A competent and fiery coach can be a differencemaker and the White Tigers have one in Carlson.
But no matter how commanding the leader, a good portion of his success is predicated on the horses available to him. This season, Carlson is convinced he’s got an arsenal of talent that has the potential to take him a far piece. “I know these kids have it in them to do something special,” Carlson relates.
As a Division 5 school, EC hardly has an expansive roster, with only 32 players expected to be on this year’s varsity. But despite the limited numbers, Carlson likes the makeup of his team, calling it a “lean, mean, fighting machine.” However, with lack of depth being an issue, anywhere from five to six yeoman players will be called upon to go both ways and do double duty, not exactly an easy task.
For the White Tigers to take a quan- tum leap forward and become a factor in the Valley (League) standings, their offense is going to have to perk up substantially from a year ago but Carlson is firmly convinced that can be accomplished. The White Tigers will run out of the flex triple option, a dynamic and often tricky deployment when executed properly. Heavy on the ground game, which will constitute about 67% of the calls, the EC flex will feature plenty of bootlegs, belly runs, traps and counters. But the passing game won’t be ignored. The playbook calls for an integral mix of both play-action and sprint-out passes.
The triple flex is good fit for EC because of its inherent deception, knack for slowing down defenses and ability to attack the edge. This offense also allows EC to emphasis its speed, quickness and smarts while minimizing the importance of an opponent’s size and possible physical superiority.
The triggerman for the EC offense will be junior quarterback James Frazier. Equipped with good size and athleticism, Frazier is an elusive and strong runner who is quite adept at scrambling. Armed with a robust gun, he’s capable of slinging the ball deep. More accurate on intermediate throws when on the move, rather than in the pocket, look for him to roll out whenever possible.
Since the bedrock of the flex is the running game, a productive fullback is an absolute necessity to make things hum and EC is blessed with such an asset. Tough Mutula Kwangaba will be the offense’s bell cow and is projected to get a majority of the carries. A skilled, heady and disciplined gridder, who runs 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, Mutula will be the catalyst upon which the White Tigers will rely. It’s not an exaggeration to state that as goes Kwangaba, so goes EC.
Another ball carrier of consequence figures to be wingback Shawn Carbajal, who runs low, has great balance and can be counted on to pick up some key yards.
Ensuring the fact that the receiving corps will be making a meaningful contribution and won’t be merely a sideshow, is the wideout duo of Jake Zimmerman and Cameron Williams. At 6-foot-2, Zimmerman couples his size with a slick pair of hands to make him a legitimate threat. Meanwhile, the athletic Williams, who also excels at hoops, can really elevate and is an expert at knowing how to high point the ball.
Up front, a not particularly big but nonetheless fast and nimble offensive line will be counted upon to carve out holes and create space for the running game. Without question the most dedicated group in the weight room, Carlson likes the cohesion and camaraderie that exists among these down linemen. The anchor of the O-line is expected to be 5-11, 185-pound guard Josh Seo, who brings with him a lunchpail mentality and is a standout when pulling to lead the rocket and jet sweeps.
And just as the offense will need to up the ante from last season, so will the defense be required to show marked and dramatic improvement. On too many occasions in 2014, the defense was pushed around while being greatly responsible for EC yielding an unsightly total of 298 points. But with a year’s more experience and potential impact players occupying some key spots, the defense has the chance to come together and become truly legit.
EC will operate out of a 4-3 scheme and hopes to bring plenty of pressure. Carlson isa big proponent of forcing the issue and making offenses feel the heat. He believes in the high-risk, highreward approach. Look for The White Tigers to be aggressive with their stunts and blitzes as well as doing their utmost to disguise coverages and create confusion at the line of scrimmage.
If the defense is to hold its own, and hopefully thrive, the onus will clearly fall on the linebackers. Expected by Carlson to be the backbone of his “D,” this is a well-conditioned unit with the versatility to close quickly on the run and to drop neatly into coverage.
Manning the critical Mike position will be the aforementioned Seo, a hardworking charger imbued with great instincts and someone who clearly gets after it. A perfect complement to Seo and playing opposite of him will be junior Logan Stuart. This 5-9, 205-pound bundle of effervescence seems to always be functioning at 200 miles per hour. Tough, crafty and mature, Stuart is a bona fide leader on the field who makes things happen. Another ‘backer of note is the multi-tasking Carbajal, a scrappy hitter who puts his high football IQ to good use when defending.
In an attempt to keep his defensive linemen fresh and less likely to wear down, Carlson will rotate this group with regularity, utilizing a “by the committee” approach. But regardless of how many snaps he may receive, look for the mammoth Josh Barre to wreak havoc on the opposition. Listed at 6-5 and 285 pounds and easily the biggest player on the roster, the junior Barre is a match-up nightmare who is difficult to move. Just now beginning to come into his own and getting comfortable with his sizeable frame, Barre is a physical force capable of playing through contact. Having ratcheted up his intensity, Barre should be a lane-clogging force who will terrorize enemy ball-carriers.
Though there are no true standouts on the back end of the defense, Carlson thinks his defensive backs can be steady and reliable while providing run support and pass coverage.
The prospects for the special teams seem quite promising. Carlson envisions this as being an area with lots of upside. Holding down both the placekicking and punting duties will be the versatile Zimmerman. Already considered to be college worthy, the talented junior incorporates a powerful lower base to put a hurt on any ball that meets his educated foot. His enviable range for field goals extends out to 50 yards. Meanwhile, Zimmerman is a efficient and reliable punter who consistently boots it 40 yards and does so with notable hang time. It won’t be at all surprising if Zimmerman’s potent leg proves to be the deciding factor in a few upcoming games.
Another part of the special teams mix that is expected to shine is a kickoff return squad that can utilize any one of three running backs and has had great success in the recent past. Carlson has great confidence that this unit will consistently bring the ball back near midfield.
And don’t sleep on the punt coverage crew. Given Zimmerman’s knack for kicking directionally and Carlson’s belief that he’ll find 11 players committed to flying to the ball, the White Tigers could often win the field position battle with the help of this group.
The rallying cry and mantra for EC this season is “Beat the Odds.” It speaks to the team’s desire to overcome, make a statement and win the school’s first ever postseason game. It suggests a new era may be at hand. For too long, the White Tigers have been devalued, taken for granted and dismissed. A team that was often taken lightly by opponents. But no more. No longer will they allow the preconceived notions of others, usually not all that becoming, to define them. In 2015, they intend to seize the moment and forge a shiny new identity for themselves. An identity that won’t be just a temporary phenomenon but will have real staying power.
The time is now. The right coach appears to be in place. A bunch of highly motivated players, desperate to show their worth, are primed for a breakout year. And a much more favorable schedule, pitting EC against more comparable schools in terms of size, looms dead ahead. The confluence of these and others factors suggests the dawning of a bright day.
The White Tigers break the seal on this season with a game versus Calipatria on August 28th. Mark that date down. It could very well be then that the winning football culture at EC commences.