- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
Long Beach (Calif.) Poly is the kind of high school football power where a four-loss season constitutes a disappointment, no matter the circumstances. So then why is it that a 12-4 record in 2012 has so many people around the Jackrabbits program so excited for 2013?
It stems from the belief that one of darkest days in program history is helping to shine the spotlight forward onto one of the most anticipated seasons of Poly football.
It was understandable to see sadness merge into confusion for the Jackrabbits players as they walked off the field following a 56-0 loss at the hands of Harbor City (Calif.) Narbonne last September. They'd never seen the scoreboard look like that in their time at Poly. For that matter, neither had their parents, nor their grandparents. It had been nearly 100 years since the Jackrabbits suffered a defeat of that magnitude -- a 62-0 loss to San Diego High in 1916 -- and if that was rock bottom for the 2012 team, the following week didn't offer much of a reprieve as Poly dropped a 29-6 decision to Bakersfield (Calif.).
"There were a lot of things going on in the beginning [of the year]," coach Raul Lara said. "That game against Narbonne was a very humbling experience for all of us and it put everything in perspective. I think these guys that experienced that know what I'm talking about and they will tell you that too."
Some of "those guys" are the reason for the optimism this spring. After the loss to Bakersfield, junior athlete John Smith was slotted at safety in addition to wide receiver, and senior defensive back David Price slid to cornerback after Jaloni Patterson tore his ACL. But the biggest difference was up front on both sides of the ball, and that's what is going to carry the Jackrabbits again this season.
"When we went into league, we really concentrated on the fundamentals, especially the guys up front," Lara said. "We felt like we were soft up there."
The Jackrabbits hardened quickly, as Gasetoto Schuster moved to center and anchored a line that featured fellow 2014 prospects Jason Fao and Drew Ho. Poly wasn't tested during a 6-0 run through league play, as well as state playoff wins over La Puente Bishop Amat, Mission Viejo, Bellflower St. John Bosco and Fresno Clovis North proved the Jackrabbits were back as one of the state's -- and nation's -- elite.
And despite losing several key players, including Price and running back Gerard Wicks, a bulk of the talent returns this season.
Again, the headliner will be Smith, an ESPN 150 prospect who goes by "JuJu" and has the dynamic game to match the nickname. He'll pair with standout 2015 prospect Iman "Biggie" Marshall in the secondary and at wide receiver. Smith holds offers from several of the top programs in the country, including Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon, UCLA and USC. Marshall already holds offers from Oregon State, Tennessee, UCLA, USC and Washington, among others.
Safety Elijah Moody, who holds offers from Colorado State, Hawaii and Idaho, and cornerback Demetric Woodard, with offers from Arizona State, Houston, San Diego State and San Jose State, help round out a secondary that will have plenty of eyes on it this spring and fall.
"I think our secondary is going to be one of the best in the country," Lara said. "With Moody coming over, it's like we have too many guys there, where not all of them are going to be playing."
At linebacker, Lara hopes 2014 prospect Caleb Tucker can take over in the middle and there are high hopes for 2015 outside linebacker Omari Lyles to continue his stellar play from last year, as he was another of the changes made that spurred the team over the second half of the season.
Along the defensive line, the Jackrabbits will be spurred by several youngsters, including 2015 defensive end Joseph Wicker, 2015 defensive tackle Christopher Taliu and 2016 defensive tackle Emmanuel Fesili.
"Obviously Wicker is going to be an awesome kid," Lara said. "That's a young kid who I think is going to have a hell of a year this year. He's a very strong kid and an athletic kid."
Wicker will also spend some time at tight end, where he'll help bring a bulldozer mentality to the offensive line, which will feature several returning seniors as well as 2015 offensive tackle Justin Canada.
But the youth movement doesn't stop there. The Jackrabbits found their way with a tandem tailback approach last season, and it looks as though those two seniors will be replaced by a pair of juniors in 2013, in Jeremy Calhoun and JJ Brooks. It also wouldn't be surprising to see 2016 sensation Micah Croom get some time at tailback or safety, though his future is likely in the defensive backfield.
"Right now I'm really liking Jeremy Calhoun," Lara said after only a couple of spring ball practices. "JJ will probably be the muscle guy and Jeremy will be kind of the guy who can do a little bit of everything."
The Jackrabbits welcome back a senior leader at quarterback in Tai Tiedemann, who took over midway through last season and gained some valuable experience. How he fares will go a long way toward determining what kind of season this is for Poly.
"The key for the offense will be how sharp our quarterback is and how the offensive line plays," Lara said. "We're going to be big and we're going to be physical. That's what I'm looking forward to."
Lara isn't shy about setting some serious goals for this team early on during spring ball.
"I've been doing this for a long time now -- 23 years," he said. "They have the capability of being one of the better Poly teams. But you can always have the capability. You have to do it. Like I always say, everybody looks cute in shorts. I'm really excited about this year and we'll just go from there."
For the first time since the 2009 season, expectations entering the season are sky high for Poly and Lara is stressing what that means moving forward.
"That's where us coaches are a little worried -- do the guys really understand where you're at right now?" Lara said. "We're not going to be sneaking up on people and we know that, but the kids need to understand that. I think they do, and I'm really liking what I'm seeing out here. We just need to play Poly ball."