Joe Davidson

Hometown Report: Prep football gets ‘dead period’ spotlight at Levi’s media day

Representatives from 33 north state teams descended on Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara for the MaxPreps/USA Football Media Day, on July 22, 2015.
Representatives from 33 north state teams descended on Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara for the MaxPreps/USA Football Media Day, on July 22, 2015. The Associated Press

Even when the CIF sets mandatory downtime for all high school athletics, there’s still some activity.

Sort of.

The CIF, targeting football, has set a mandatory “dead period” from July 20 to Aug. 10. This means no workouts beyond weight-room sessions and no helmets, shoulder pads or cleats.

But a jersey? Wear at will, a theme that played out beautifully at Levi’s Stadium on Wednesday afternoon during the MaxPreps/USA Football Media Day.

Representatives from 33 Northern California teams descended upon the 49ers’ home, taking in the year-old stadium and talking to media about a topics ranging from team expectations to safety concerns.

De La Salle, the nation’s preseason No. 1-ranked team by MaxPreps, was on hand, impressive in appearance and words. This is the program that beat Jesuit and Del Oro in the 2014 regular season and will play Del Oro and Granite Bay this fall. The Spartans have not lost to a regional team since 1991. Folsom and Grant, The Bee’s top-ranked teams at the end of last season, were not at Levi’s Stadium, taking to heart the “dead period” and using the time for family vacations.

If not for a “dead period,” prep teams would work right through the summer. Competition drives everyone, and if it isn’t happening on the field, it’s happening in the mind.

Preparing for his 14th season at Del Oro and seeking the program’s third CIF State Bowl bid since 2011, coach Casey Taylor admits that he remains fueled by challenges.

“Football is great, but it’s getting harder every year with the demands,” Taylor said, flanked by four players, each wearing a tie underneath his jersey, and his young son, Jackson. “But I love it. We’re a blue-collar team from a blue-collar town in Loomis. There are schools that don’t want to play us, but we’ll play anyone.

“We were humbled by De La Salle, but you learn. Any day we have an off moment, I can say, ‘Hey, I bet De La Salle isn’t taking the day off.’”

Jesuit lost its 2014 opener to De La Salle 63-0 and grew from the experience, finishing 9-3. It’s how a team responds to adversity that defines a season, assistant coach David Salias said at Levi’s, surrounded by players who spoke glowingly of their experiences as Marauders.

De La Salle will be the ultimate test for Granite Bay and first-year coach Jeff Evans, who takes over for Ernie Cooper. Evans isn’t awed by the task as much as he’s stimulated by it, saying, “My role is to give these guys the best experience in football as we can. The tradition is big here.”

The tradition is big in the Cusano home, too. One of Granite Bay’s top players is receiver-defensive back Sam Cusano, the son of Dave, a star nose guard from Folsom in the early 1980s before playing at Oregon. Granite Bay’s Sierra Foothill League title hopes likely hinge on beating defending champion Folsom, which went 16-0 last season.

“Football is big for us,” Sam Cusano said of the Grizzlies and his family.

Elk Grove coach Chris Nixon was joined by four players, each with a 3.5 grade-point average last year or better. They talked of Herd pride, playing multiple sports to maximize the prep experience, the joy of being a “Hammerhead” lineman, maintaining a competitive edge in a district that swelled to nine schools, and playing the game hard and safely.

“Football will be better off long term if we’re all smarter about contact,” Nixon said.

Franklin coach Mike Johnson started the Wildcats from scratch 15 years ago, helping them rise from “babies” to a successful program. Johnson for years doubled as a youth coach, the feeder program to his prep programs. The lessons for all levels, he said, go beyond blocking and tackling. You have to play smart, which equates to safely.

“I saw a lot of drills in youth football where I cringed,” Johnson said. “Concussions, all the media coverage of it, it’s starting to scare parents of players. We have lower numbers in the Elk Grove Unified School District at all levels. We need to be active and aware of safety.”

Franklin’s star player, Lamar Jackson, is a defensive back who also can run the ball and play quarterback. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior has 22 scholarship offers that include Michigan, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Jackson said leadership includes a new emphasis now.

“If I see a player who is dizzy from a hit, I’ll make sure he goes to the sideline,” Jackson said. “It’s for his own safety.”

And to maintain the fun in this great game.

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