SALINA —In his first season as head coach of the Salina Central football program, Mark Sandbo knows there is significant work to be done.
That would have been true whether Sandbo was taking over a program coming off a state championship season, or a team that is coming off back-to-back winless seasons, as is the case with the Mustangs.
It’s been nearly six months since Sandbo was named Central’s head coach. A Smoky Valley High School and Fort Hays State alumnus, Sandbo had spent seven seasons as an assistant coach at Dodge City High School when he was named to replace Mike Hall, who had been Central head coach for 12 years.
When he was officially named Central coach back on March 1, Sandbo said he felt fortunate to be part of the Mustang program. That hasn’t changed.
“I feel comfortable with it, but it’s easy to step into a position like this when you are surrounded by great people and great kids,” Sandbo said. “That’s what Salina Central has.
“The administration has been very supportive and we have a really good coaching staff. It’s an easy transition when you work with people like that.”
The word transition is synonymous with change, and there will be that this season for the Mustangs. Those changes include moving personnel into new positions, potentially using some players on both sides of the ball more than in the past, and changes in offensive and defensive schemes.
Sandbo was offensive coordinator at Dodge City and will also serve in that capacity for the Mustangs. That is also the area that will likely see some of the biggest changes in his first season.
One thing that likely won’t change: senior running back Taylon Peters will get his chance to carry the ball. Now in his third year as a starter, Peters has 2,100 career rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns, leading the team in rushing yards in both his sophomore and junior seasons.
“I would call us a spread offense but it is always a good play call when you hand the ball off to 33 (Peters),” Sandbo said. “I don’t think it was any secret that he was going to carry the ball last year and we feel the same way — we want to get him the ball in multiple ways.
“If teams are allowing us to run the football, we’ll run the football. But it will be a versatile offense that allows you to take shots and spread the ball around the field.”
The Mustangs will go with junior Jackson Kavanagh at quarterback and believe they have a deep set of receivers for Kavanagh to work with.
Inside receiver Riley Counts showed his versatility a year ago when he was second on the team in all-purpose yards, including 196 yards receiving and 210 rushing.
Counts and senior Gavin Prester are the most experienced returning players at receiver, with the Mustangs also planning to use senior Ben Driver and juniors Logan Heigele and Quinn Stewart at that position.
“It’s a dynamic group,” Sandbo said. “A guy like Riley Counts can catch the ball and go 90 yards. We’ve got some guys that we can throw the ball 10 yards and let them go make plays.”
Kavanagh got three starts at quarterback as a sophomore, but will be expected to do much more this season.
“Jackson has a lot of those intangibles that allow this type of offense to have success,” Sandbo said. “He can run the football, he can throw the football and he wants to do it. He wants to be the guy and he wants to compete.”
Kavanagh will take snaps behind a revamped offensive line. Senior Matthew Goldammer has the most experience among the returning players at right tackle, but senior Josh Morrow comes across the line after starting on defense a year ago, and junior Houston Griffitts got considerable playing time a year ago at fullback.
“We’ve made some changes,” Sandbo said. “Josh Morrow is moving to the offensive side of the ball and playing left tackle. Houston Griffitts has moved from fullback and is now at a guard position. We told him he is the prototypical guard and he’s become really effective for us.
“Matthew Goldammer is a returning starter and playing at right tackle, and we’ve also got some pups in there that are going to be good football players like Jake Eisenhauer and Evan Bishop.”
The defense has some experience returning and should receive an additional boost from seniors Greg Gibson and Ben Driver, two projected starters in 2017 who both missed the entire season for health reasons.
“I’m really impressed with our defense,” Sandbo said. “Our mantra is playing phast, and we spell it that way because we want to play physical, fast football.
“This defense will play really fast and fly to the football.”
There’s experience in the secondary with two returning starters at cornerback in senior Jere Thomas (a two-year starter) and junior Gage Prester. Driver returns at safety and, if the Mustangs use him on the offensive side, have juniors Cooper Chard and Kray True in the safety rotation.
Junior Quinton Stewart, a returning starter who had 43 tackles in eight games as a sophomore, anchors the defensive line at one of the ends.
The Mustangs hope to avoid playing linemen on both sides of the ball and will use senior Fernando Rodriquez, senior Dylan Dominguez, junior Talus Price and sophomore Rafael Serrano on the defensive line.
“It’s a pretty solid group and we feel pretty fortunate with what we have there,” Sandbo said. “They’ll put us in position to be successful.”
Seniors Michael Russell, Drew Burgoon and Gibson give the Mustangs plenty of experience at linebacker. Russell and Gibson were both voted team captains for this season, with Burgoon the team’s top returning player in total tackles from a year ago when he finished with 54.
Peters also will see time at linebacker, playing on both sides of the ball again this season. Sandbo said junior Israel Torres could play down lineman or at inside linebacker if needed.
“We have some hybrid defensive players,” Sandbo said. “We have some that can play inside or outside linebacker. We have some that can play both standing or can play in the dirt. I don’t see that as a negative at all.”