Orange Coast College football coach Mike Taylor has had enough trouble navigating the annual mine field known as his schedule. In recent years, however, he has been increasingly plagued by the pitfalls, mostly academics, that have posed too great an opposition for his would-be returning players.
The recent off-season proved perilous, indeed, as Taylor lost 2011 All-American running back Domenic Betts, outside linebacker Aaron Jones, who led the team in tackles as a freshman, and a handful of other 2011 contributors to obstacles having nothing to do with an on-field opponent.
"It's unfortunate, but that's what happens at this level," said Taylor, who in his previous 13 seasons has posted just two winning records, the last coming in 2006.
Betts set a school single-season record and led the state with 1,772 rushing yards, while also producing 21 of the Pirates' 33 touchdowns in 2011. But even with Betts, whose speed and determination helped him flourish behind a veteran offensive line and helped OCC lead the state in rushing offense and finish No. 1 in the 37-school Southern California Football Assn. with 27 rushing TDs, OCC finished a forgettable 4-6, 2-3 in the East Conference.
In addition to Betts and Jones, whose 86 tackles were one more than returning linebacker Nick Cody, OCC will be without would-be sophomores Bronson Arguello (a defensive tackle), Matt Carlyle (an Estancia High product and receiver whose 26 catches led the team), and Colton Christensen (who was by far the team's best defensive player until suffering a season-ending knee injury at midseason).
Arguello and Betts were casualties of academics, Taylor said, while Jones and Carlyle had personal issues that led to their leaving the team. Christensen has transferred to Saddleback College, Taylor said.
In all, 65 of 85 would-be returners are no longer on the roster, leaving Taylor with a virtual clean slate as the team shifts to the Southern Conference that also includes Saddleback, Santa Ana, Fullerton, Golden West, Grossmont and Palomar.
Also new is offensive coordinator Rudy Caamano and linebackers coach Matt Grootegoed.
Caamano, who will oversee the Pirates' spread offense, is a former college quarterback who threw for 1,743 yards and 13 touchdowns in two seasons at New Mexico. His college career also includes stops at Mt. San Antonio Community College and Iowa State.
Grootegoed, a former All-American linebacker at USC, earned a place in the pantheon of Orange County high school football as a two-way standout at Mater Dei. He had brief NFL stops in Detroit and Tampa Bay, before a three-year career with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League ended in 2009.
"I like this group and I like the new coaches on staff," said Taylor, whose team opens at home on Sept. 1 against Moorpark.
Other newcomers to the coaching staff are receivers coaches Harold Williams and Reggie Stover. Williams and Stover, as well as Caamano, hope to jump start an aerial attack that produced just five touchdown passes in 2011, tied for last in the SCFA.
Sophomore tailback Robert Penny, who led the team with 627 rushing yards on his way to second-team all-conference recognition in 2010, has returned and should lead the ground game that may also rely on former Newport Harbor High standout Buzzy Yokoyama.
Penny, 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, and returning starting fullback Andrew Thompson (6-0, 240) will attempt to find ground yardage behind a line anchored by sophomore Kyle Finney (6-3, 295).
Finney started at left guard last season, but could play guard or center this fall. The offensive front also includes former Costa Mesa High standout Andrew Albers (6-8, 295), a bounce-back left tackle from the University of Utah.
"I think we can run the ball with the guys we have up front," Taylor said.
Mike Frank started a handful of games last season at quarterback and threw for 919 yards. He completed 92 of 163 attempts with three touchdowns and six interceptions. But he is waging a battle for the job with a cast of viable candidates that include freshmen Jon Newsome out of Trabuco Hills High, Clark Livingston (Orange Lutheran and La Habra high schools) and Cameron Biedgoly (Beckman).
Taylor said there is more speed this season at receiver, where Tyler Duncan (25 catches for 285 yards) and Chris Brown (15 receptions) provide experience.
Cam Oliver and Bryan Keller, out of Mission Viejo High, are freshmen who could also make an impact at receiver.
Defensively, Cody, who shifts from the middle to outside 'backer, is the best-known quantity He was second-team all-conference last season.