HERMISTON — Head football coach Mark Hodges clenched a whistle in his teeth. With the first chirp, the Hermiston senior football players would begin their practice preparations starting with 20 yards of lunges. The second blast would signal the juniors to follow, stretching one leg ahead of the other to make a kneeling position. A third blow would send the sophomores.
Though the ensuing shrills perfectly echoed the leading cry, the lines of football pad-clad Bulldogs were no mirror images. Just 12 players represented the senior class — with two Dawgs out of practice Wednesday.
Both the juniors and sophomores more than doubled that number.
Among the highlights of Hermiston’s underclassmen are the hands expected to take the opening snap on the Dawgs’ first offensive series when the team travels to Putnam on Aug. 31. Sophomore Chase Knutz has been ordained as the starting quarterback.
“He is an intelligent young man and he learns quick,” Hodges said. “He’s really adaptable to different things and pays attention to detail.”
Hermiston will be going with a sophomore under center for the second year in a row after Alex Campbell took the majority of snaps during last season’s 6-5 campaign. The youth at signal caller last year led to a heavy reliance on the blockers up front and a workhorse running back named Bobby Adams — a 2,000-yard back.
With Adams graduated, Hodges plans to move wide receiver Alex Ortiz into the tailback role, recreating that power running machine.
“I think our running attack, we plan on picking up right where we left off,” Hodges said.
For Knutz (Cu-noots), who threw for 22 touchdowns during an 8-0 freshman campaign last fall, that’s a bit of a relief.
“It’s a lot helpful,” Knutz said of having the senior in his backfield. “He knows what to expect and he’ll be able to help you out. He’s a great player.”
Some time will have to pass before the pair can synchronize, though. Hodges said Wednesday that Ortiz will miss at least the first game of the season after being hospitalized with a virus this week. With the team’s “most dynamic player” out of the lineup, the early season Bulldogs will look much different than when Ortiz returns to the field.
Knutz said he had his eye on the starting quarterback job from the beginning of summer camp. The team traveled to Cove earlier this month, practicing at La Grande High School, as part of a team-building venture. It was there the 6-foot-1 thrower started to believe it possible to make the jump from freshman-team star to varsity-team starter.
“I knew I could, but I knew it was going to be hard. I wasn’t just going to be coming straight into this,” he said. “After getting a lot of reps and getting used to it, you know you’re getting the feel for it and I started feeling a lot better.”
Ahead of the newly formed backfield, Hermiston will start all sophomores and juniors on the offensive line except possibly one position. But two of those players, juniors Damian Martinez and Brad Brown, are returning all-league linemen.
Knutz said he wants to make sure other teams don’t underestimate the Bulldogs’ offense strictly because of its youth.
“People don’t think you can do it; you’ve got to show them you can,” Knutz said. “We’ll be playing against a lot of good teams in the state with good older players. We’ll just show them you can be young and still be good.”
In preparation of next week’s first game, Hermiston will hold a team scrimmage at Kennison Field on Friday at 7 p.m. Hodges said his team’s offense and defense will simulate game situations, but won’t play with referees present. The second-string boys will get the majority of the snaps as the starters have mostly been determined at this point.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.