The transition back to the National Division was everything but kind on the Knights in 2018.
Not only did Shasta College have to face adversity before the entire team arrived on campus due to the Carr Fire that swept through Shasta County, but competing in arguably the nation’s premier conference in junior college football was going to be a multi-year process.
A 2-8 campaign was followed by the first head coaching change in 23 years. Craig Thompson, the Knights’ winningest coach in program history (115-125), handed the reins over to offensive coordinator Bryon Hamilton and stepped back to control the defense this fall.
The goal remains the same despite their varying personalities and coaching styles. Hamilton pushes for a more detailed and energetic environment, mirroring the four-year schools his players are trying to reach.
“Everything we’re doing is with great attention to detail; everything has a purpose, a goal and an expected path,” Hamilton said. “The intense atmosphere we have is only useful if the players understand the importance of when it’s ‘go time’ and when to be relaxed.”
The structure has been well-received.
“He changed our mindset on how we approach everything we do; to work hard in practice, in the classroom — being a better man,” said sophomore running back Matt McCree.
The intensified culture kick-started the development throughout the program, starting with recruiting. The Knights opened fall camp with 101 players with positional depth and several NCAA Division I-caliber players, Hamilton said. It’s that kind of change that will threaten powerhouses like American River College, Butte College and College of the Siskiyous.
“We didn’t have the caliber player size-wise or depth to compete on the same basis for four quarters,” Hamilton said. “I really feel like we closed the gap.”
The two position groups that will elevate the Knights this fall are in the trenches. Three starters and several other key contributors on the defensive line return to make up a ferocious unit that can instill fear into opponents. Sophomores Detrius Kelsall, Cole Parker, Torren Calhoun, Payton Harrell, Rashard Budd and Shane Mitchell make up half of the “Dirty Dozen,” as the group dubbed itself in the offseason, which will push to be a top defense in the state, Kelsall said.
“I think the tenacity we have and the mindset we have, we’re going to stomp on (the opponent’s) throat every play, no matter what,” said the Shasta High product Kelsall, who received multiple D-I offers after last year’s 41-tackle, 2.5-sack freshman season. “It’s going to be brutal.”
Hamilton echoes the same sentiment.
“I think Craig and (defensive line coach) Eric Jenkinson would agree this might be one of the best groups of defensive linemen we’ve ever had at Shasta College,” Hamilton said.
The other side of the ball saw a huge upgrade as well, drawing 16 linemen and the starting five carrying JUCO experience with size, averaging 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds across the board. Michael Johnson is one of those leaders as he shifts from tackle to center and is joined by tackles Garret McAlexander (6-5, 315) and Zach Foley (6-5, 320), and guards Aiden Schatz (6-5, 320), Carlos Rodriguez (6-3, 330) and Steven Trujillo (6-3, 325) battling for the final two spots.
Hamilton isn’t the only one expecting the offense to see an improvement from last year’s 24.1 points per game, the lowest mark in his 12 seasons on the Knights’ staff (1997-02, 2013-present). Quarterback Hoku-Lani Wickard is eager to get going with the upgraded weapons around him.
“I think we’re capable of putting up past year’s numbers and lead the state in points like Shasta did a few years back (in 2014),” said Wickard, who led the NorCal Conference with 1,254 passing yards to go with his 2,329 yards on the season and 19 touchdowns.
Wickard has slimmed down 21 pounds since the spring and has a full grasp of the offense now, Hamilton said. The improved decision-making and athleticism should help him cut the 15 interceptions thrown last year in half, at least.
“He’s very accurate, throws a great ball and can fit it into tight windows; you’re seeing his confidence grow,” Hamilton said. “He couldn’t get the smile off his face throwing to some of our receivers and looking at his big O-line.”
Not only are the receivers impressive but they’re deep at the position with 10 to 13 guys competing for playing time. Among those are newcomers Kentrell Petite, Brandon Morris, and Florida natives James Lee and Ivan Smith. Returning speedster Dy’Shone Hayes and Foothill High alum Carson Marx, who is back at his natural position after filling a void at defensive back last season, provide explosive playmaking ability in the offense, which was lacking in 2018, Hamilton said.
Other pass catchers in the mix will be tight ends London McCall, Brayden Mell and West Valley grad Jusiah Gable.
McCree leads the charge in the backfield and Hamilton says he’s capable of being an every-down type of player. Next to him is Shasta High grad Vinny Smith, who ran for more than 2,000 yards as a senior in 2017, and Adonis Thomas, a leading running back in Texas a couple years back. Thomas played strong safety for the Knights last fall due to team need. Three-sport athlete Tyler Boston (a 2,000-yard runner at Dixon High) turned down a walk-on spot at Sacramento State to come to Shasta and can do some damage as a Knight.
The defense still has a lot of positions up for grabs. Larry Polk is expected to be plugged in as the middle linebacker in Shasta’s 4-3 base scheme. The Knights benefit from his desire to reach a prestigious four-year school after turning down D-I offers from Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan. The rest around him remains a question with returner Virgil Ellis and offense-turned ’backer George Fountain capable candidates.
Newcomers flood the defensive backfield with Nick Smith, Ty Lemon and Poet Grayson all looking good early in camp, Hamilton said. But inexperience at the JUCO level lurks at that position.
Shasta’s nonconference schedule looks daunting, opening at home Sept. 7 against Chabot, going on the road to Santa Rosa and hosting Sacramento City. But the NorCal Conference is even tougher — in particular the final three games of the year. Road games at rivals Siskiyous and Butte bookend a home date against nationally ranked American River.
But better competition fuels the fire for the Knights.
“We’ll be facing All-Americans, nationally ranked recruits with offers from the Pac-12, SEC and all that,” said Parker, a defensive leader who tied for the team-lead in sacks last year with four. “I know and a lot of us know we can compete with them but may be just a little undersized. But that’s our chance to prove we can play at the next level.
“We have freaks on this team, and I can’t wait to show people what we can do.”
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