VISALIA — Who's ready for some spring football?
The 52 players set to suit up for College of the Sequoias' first game in more than 15 months sure are.
First-year Giants head coach Travis Burkett and his staff are, too
Sequoias will open a two-game season March 13 against Antelope Valley. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. from Lancaster's Marauder Stadium. Fans will not be permitted, but the game will be live streamed at https://t.co/oXtT9QGOWd?amp=1.
California community college football has been delayed since September 2020 because of safety precautions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The Giants last played Nov. 23, 2019, when they fell 38-28 to Butte in the Gridiron Classic.
"We've got the absolute die-hard, I-love-football guys. These are the guys who want to be here and love it," said Burkett, hired as the 22nd coach in school history last April after three seasons as an assistant at NCAA Division I UNLV. "It's been a year of everyone battling through this pandemic. It's been a slow, steady grind by the players and coaches. We've been working when they say we can work. Now we have the opportunity to come out of a competitive spring training camp, and we're thrilled to get to play Antelope Valley."
Defense was the backbone of a 2019 Sequoias team that went 6-5 and qualified for a bowl game for the first time in 10 seasons, and a key member of that unit returns in safety Anthony Cervantes (Tulare Western).
Cervantes made 36 tackles, four for losses, had one interception and made two pass breakups last season. He'll be joined at safety by Julian Espinoza (Tulare Union) and Sam Sholty (Milwaukie, Ore.)
Brandon Mora (Madera South) and Jose Luis Ramos (Mt. Whitney) are the Giants most experienced corners, having registered five and three tackles, respectively, last season. Freshmen newcomers include Lejuane Haynes (Hanford), Zechariah Nesby (Orange Park, Fla.), Benjamin Haywood (Cape Coral, Fla.) and Elijah LaGuerre (Needham, Mass.)
At outside linebacker/edge rusher, Jacob Torres (Mt. Whitney) is the only returning player, having made three tackles last season. A pair of Golden West products, Jordan Harris and Davonte Brown, two players out of Madera South, Anthony Vaca and Matt Bolanos, and Desi Escarsega (El Diamante) also are vying for time.
The inside linebacker spots will be manned by sophomore Anthony Guzman (Woodlake) and freshmen Jayden Sullivan (Redwood), Damon Stevenson (Tulare Western), Isaak Guzman (Porterville), Elijah Garza (Memorial-Fresno) and Trent Gibble (Mt. Whitney). Anthony Guzman had six tackles in a limited role last season.
Brian Rangel (Redwood), Aaron Tejada (Tulare Western), Johan Reyes (Woodlake) and Rigo Lopez (Tulare Western) form the all-freshman group who will rotate through the defensive line.
"We're really excited about the defense," Burkett said. "It's going to be Sequoias' swarm. Attack and run to the football."
Offensively, the Giants were expected to be led by sophomore receiver Bryson Allen, a preseason All-American selection by the College Football American Yearback after catching 38 passes for 940 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019.
But Allen became one of more than 20 players from 2019 to either opt out of playing this season or walk away from football.
Without Allen, returning receivers Josh Willliams (Roosevelt-Fresno) and Josiah Martinez (Woodlake) will play a larger role. Williams nine passes for 75 yards last season. Newcomers include Antonio Perez (Hanford West), Willie Neal Jr. (Fort Myers, Fla.), Bryan Cuevas (Woodlake) and Tariq Walker (Portland, Ore.) also will see time at receiver.
"I really like our receivers," Burkett said.
The Giants have four quarterbacks -- sophomore Jordan Delarosa (Roosevelt-Fresno) and freshmen Nathan Lamb (Tulare Union), Dominic Gamboni (Bakersfield Christian) and Tate Robards (Broken Arrow, Okla.) -- on the roster, and Burkett said they all have the potential to move on to four-year colleges.
Lamb, who was a preferred walk-on at Fresno State before transferring to Sequoias, is the career passing leader at Tulare Union with 11,253 yards. He also threw 125 touchdowns in his three varsity seasons.
Protecting that group of quarterbacks will be offensive linemen Jonathan Harman (Tulare Western), Tyler Ball (Redwood), Jakob Guzman (Corcoran), Zackary Zamorano (Lemoore), Abrahaom Munoz (Delano), Justin Warford (Mission Oak), Nick Smith (Redwood), Jeston Vaulet (Sparks, Nev.). Harman has worked primarily at center, while the rest are preparing to play guard or tackle.
"Offensive football begins and ends with what you can block and what a quarterback can execute," Burkett said. "We've got more than enough skill here to be successful."
Jaedyn Pineda, a former dual-threat quarterback at Mt. Whitney, has switched positions and is slated to be the Giants' starting tailback. Pineda was the Giants' backup quarterback last season.
"Jaedyn is a summer program and elite track work with (assistant coach) Kenny Jackson away from being a recruitable tailback," Burkett said. “He's a heck of a football player. He loves ball."
Kris Lopez (Mt. Whitney), Zach Lopez (Golden West) and Elad Alrahimi (Delano) provide depth in the backfield.
At H-back, a hybrid fullback/tight end role, the Giants have three players switching positions from where they played in high school in Jayson Littlejohn (Sierra Pacific-Hanford), Anthony Valencia (Mt. Whitney) and Skyler Miller (Exeter). Littlejohn and Valencia were prolific receivers, while Miller, who will also be the Giants' long-snapper, was a quarterback.
"I've never been around it being so seamless where guys have transitioned (positions) for the good of the team," Burkett said.
Sequoias' specialists are both returning sophomores: kicker Carlos Dominic Hernandez (Tulare Western) and punter Omar Meza (Monache). Hernandez made 6 of 12 field goals and 25 of 27 point-after kicks last season, while Meza averaged 34.3 yards on 74 punts, including 15 pinned inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
The Giants' only other game is set for 2 p.m. March 27, a rematch against Antelope Valley at the Mineral King Bowl. Sequoias and Antelope Valley are among 13 of the state's 68 football-playing schools to opt to play.
"When you think about what we've done here at COS as opposed to our direct competition and up and down the state," Burkett said. "From (President/Superintendent) Brent Calvin and (Athletics Director) Brent Davis to (athletic trainers) Dennis Goebel, Lisa Lorenzi and all the training staff. It's been first class all the way. They've given these kids the opportunity to pursue their dreams, period."
Burkett said he wants the Giants to accomplish three objectives in this delayed and abbreviated season.
"First, we're learning how to do things in phases. What is training camp, and how we do things. We're going to learn how to do a road game week, a bye week and a home game week," Burkett said. "The second thing is individual development and development of our system and processes. And third, how to be a winner. How to be a champion student-athlete in spirit, body and mind. We want our guys to leave spring ball with those three things."
In addition to Burkett, who will call the plays on offense, the Giants staff includes running game coordinator/running backs coach Jeremy Gomez, pass game coordinator/special teams coordinator/receivers coach Kenny Jackson, tight ends/fullbacks coach Donovan McJunkin, offensive line coach Ivan Espiritu, defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach Raven Keene, defensive line coach Mason Ruiz and outside linebackers coach Aaron Jones.
"I've been doing this long enough to know these guys are getting great coaching," Burkett said. "They need to soak it up because it's really going to help us be champions and help them get to the next level."