Walter Ford

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August 27, 2013
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Out with the new, in with the old

The Nevada Union football team is trying to find its winning way once again after back-to-back first-round exits from the playoffs, and offensively, it will look to recapture its championship swagger with the traditional wing-T offense.

The same up-tempo, deceptive, run-first offense that has brought the Miners four Sac-Joaquin Section championships since 1993.

The same offense that new head coach Dennis Houlihan ran while a back at NU and the same one that brought him success as a head coach at Fallbrook.

One of the most important aspects of the traditional wing-T is having quick offensive lineman with impeccable timing.

“The line is good,” Houlihan said. “It’s a mixture of juniors and seniors, but the tempo of it is so good right now. They know their assignments. They’re getting off the ball. It looks good. They are grasping the old system. They are to the point where they aren’t even thinking about it anymore.”

The line is headed up by starting guard and team captain Trevor Moore.

“He works his tail off,” Houlihan said of Moore. “He does everything we ask and is so coachable. He’s improved a lot.”

The 6-foot, 2-inch 195-pound guard may be small by traditional standards, but in the wing-T, guards often pull, putting an emphasis on the athleticism of a lineman rather than the size.

The line is a bunch of studs, said Houlihan, and will be key to the offensive success of the team this season.

Who’s taking the snap?

One of the key objectives for that line will be protecting NU’s two quarterbacks, who have been immersed in a battle for the starting spot all summer.

Houlihan said he has given the nod to senior Michael Tapia to start the McQueen game, but fans should expect to see plenty of series with sophomore Justus Spillner under center.

“You will see both in preseason for sure,” Houlihan said. “Whoever can take charge as we approach league. We will settle on one once we reach league, but in the preseason, they will battle.”

Tapia saw very limited action last season, playing in three games, but never attempting a pass. Tapia has been touted by NU quarterbacks coach Chris Cota as having a strong understanding of the offense and being a team leader.

“My expectations are to do as well as we can and to show NU that the old school is coming back and it’s here to stay,” Tapia said.

Spillner has seen a meteoric rise to the varsity squad. He started the 2012 season at quarterback for the freshmen team, but then was promoted to the junior varsity squad toward the end of the season and was called up to varsity for the Miners’ playoff game against Franklin. Spillner never saw the field against Franklin but gained some valuable experience. By all appearances, Spillner boasts the better arm of the two but still has some work to do as far as reading defenses and handling the pace of the varsity game.

Stable of backs

In 2012, the Miners preferred the aerial attack to the ground game, posting more than 2,500 yards passing and just 1,467 yards rushing.

The Miners were second to last in rushing in the Sierra Foothill League behind Rocklin, but with the change back to the traditional wing-T, along with a stable of backs, the team will look to eat up yards on the ground.

The Miners have a nice mix of power and speed in their backfield with the likes of Mo Nieves, Brandon Lopez, Jake Berger and Travis Owens looking to carry the load.

Nieves looks to be this season’s work horse, said Houlihan.

“He’s a good kid, he works hard, he’s good off the field, and I see on the field the things he does have others looking to him as a leader,” Houlihan said of Nieves. “Mo is obviously a work horse kind of guy, and he’s the fastest on the team.”

Nieves, a 5-foot, 8-inch, 190-pound mass of muscle has a low center of gravity and runs viciously through defenses. On the junior varsity squad, Nieves accounted for 1,635 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns while averaging 9.6 yards per carry.

Nieves will share time with senior Brandon Lopez at the fullback position.

“It’s going to be me and Brandon Lopez as full backs, and we’re the strength of the ground game,” Nieves said. “We’re going to punch the holes and score the touchdowns.”

Another junior who will get lots of carries this season will be Travis Owens.

“He’s special,” Houlihan said. “He has two years left here, and it will be interesting to see what he does.”

Owens rushed for 1,336 yards on the junior varsity squad and punched in 12 touchdowns.

Senior Jake Berger adds speed to the backfield. Berger returned punts and kickoffs and carried the ball 24 times last season for just under 100 yards. Berger is dangerous in the open field and should provide big-play ability for the Miners.


The Miners aren’t likely to put up the passing numbers they did last season, so trying to fill Ian Davis’ and Austin Marks’ shoes isn’t even on the mind of the NU pass-catchers.

What is on their mind is making the best of the opportunities they get.

Gareth Noxon will be taking over the No. 1 receiver spot with Davi Pettinato and Brock Grininger at the tight ends.

Among the three of them, Noxon is the only one with a catch in a varsity contest. Last season, Noxon caught six balls for 105 yards and one touchdown.

The size of the tight ends should provide some advantages for NU, as both Pettinato and Grininger are 6 feet, 3 inches, and 220 pounds.

“As a whole, we bring a lot of power,” Pettinato said. “Definitely we have catching skills, but we are also big guys, so that will help in the run game.”

The Miners dropped back to pass nearly 50 percent of the time in 2012, but that number will be significantly lower in 2013 with the return of the traditional wing-T.

The new leg

The Miners welcome a new leg into the picture with Chandler Heppe assuming the kickoff, field goal and punting duties.

Kicking is new for Heppe, but he is starting to come into his own, said Houlihan.

Heppe said he can comfortably hit a field goal from 30 to 40 yards and his punting is getting better.

Houlihan went on to say that Heppe is putting kickoffs into the end zone nearly half the time during practice.

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email

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The Union Updated Aug 28, 2013 12:30AM Published Aug 28, 2013 07:26PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.