Gonzaga football pushes ahead despite losing several stars

Freshman Caleb Williams has taken over as Gonzaga’s starting quarterback this year. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

In 2016, Gonzaga’s offensive identity and production was easy to pinpoint — the triumvirate of quarterback Sam Brown, running back Tyree Randolph and wideout Max Fisher reliably lit up the scoreboard.

The trio is now suiting up on Saturdays for Butler, Fairmont State and North Carolina State, respectively, which has forced a changing of the guard at Gonzaga.

“There is always some turnover,” said Eagles coach Randy Trivers. “This year there is a lot, particularly on offense. We graduated quite a few starters on offense.”

But Trivers said some intriguing prospects remain.

“Potentially this could be a very good football team,” the coach said. “We have to grow in a lot of areas and grow fast. The potential is there. It’s just a matter of maturing quickly, the leadership ascending, and the guys figuring out who does what best and for us as coaches to put them in the best positions.”

The squad took the first steps toward team-building in training camp when the Eagles went to Mercersburg, Pa., to practice.

“It strengthened the bond between our players,” the coach said. “We got some good football work in, but the experience builds that camaraderie. There’s more trust and accountability and togetherness.”

Despite the loss of key contributors at Gonzaga, the cupboard is hardly bare at the I Street NW school. It starts with the team’s quartet of senior captains — linebacker Jake Galli, running back Jason Labbe, tight end Robbie Mangas and offensive lineman Aidan Rafferty.

“The senior class, you always hope that group replaces the group that departs,” said Trivers. “Every year there is a cycle with players going in and out. We have four strong captains that we feel like will do a good job of replacing the leadership.”

Each captain has a big task. For Labbe, it’s trying to help fill the void created by the graduation of Randolph — the school’s all-time leading rusher.

“Jason is an impact player,” said Trivers. “He will do a number of different things for us as he has done in the past. He’s different than Tyree. He is going to be Jason, and we are going to utilize his skill set. He has versatility to do a number of things on offense in the run-and-pass game. On defense he can do a lot of things in the box. He’s a different player.”

Meanwhile, Rafferty steps into a key role as the team’s left tackle after Johnny Jordan’s graduation. “[Rafferty] had a breakout year last year as an offensive lineman. We expect his leadership to be prominent up front,” the coach said.

For their part, Galli and Mangas are expected to be “very good leaders and productive players on the field,” according to Trivers.

The biggest change on offense comes at the quarterback position, where freshman quarterback Caleb Williams earned the first two starts of the season against Gilman and Viera.

“When you talk about the quarterback position, you always would like to have someone with experience in a varsity game when it matters,” said Trivers. “Whoever lines up at quarterback are guys that haven’t had significant reps in a varsity game.”

The Gonzaga defense is led by seasoned studs like Malik Bridgeman, wearing No. 55, seen blocking a field goal against Viera. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

While the Eagles’ offense is in flux, their defense has grown up after starting a slew of sophomores in 2016.

Trivers pointed to junior Dean Ingram, who he said “has been a very good player for us. He’s a multipurpose player that will help us on both sides of the ball. We expect him to make an impact.”

Meanwhile, do-it-all player John Marshall is a junior who has been “a very good player for us on offense, defense and special teams; we expect big things from him,” the coach said.

Trivers also mentioned juniors Joseph Wete and Hunter Stewart as part of his talented junior class. “They were young, and now we expect them to really blossom as juniors that played as young sophomores,” he said.

With a blend of returning talent and new starters, the Eagles have seen mixed results so far.

Williams introduced himself as a passer with a 75-yard touchdown pass to Dean Engram and a 55-yard scoring strike to Sydney Person. The freshman quarterback finished the day with 151 passing yards, and Person led the team with three receptions for 71 yards.

In the season-opening win, in which Gonzaga topped Gilman by 38-0 on Aug. 26, Loic Sangwa ran for two scores and Labbe added a touchdown. In total the Eagles offense racked up 360 yards in the romp.

The Eagles’ defense created havoc including an interception by senior defensive lineman Malik Bridgeman.

Gonzaga followed up the victory with a 21-6 loss to Florida’s Viera on Sept. 1. In that contest, The Eagles couldn’t find a rhythm on offense, but junior kicker Marco Kemp booted a pair of field goals to keep the Eagles in the game.

Williams had another strong performance at quarterback while completing 17 passes for 207 yards.

The Eagles played New Jersey’s Peddie School on Friday and will host Jesuit rival Georgetown Prep on Saturday at 2 p.m.

Gonzaga hopes its early-season lessons and non-conference schedule will prepare it for Washington Catholic Athletic Conference play, which starts on Sept. 29 against Bishop McNamara.

“The goal is always to line up and give our players the best chance to be successful and to ultimately win a football game,” said Trivers. “We have the makings of a team that can go out every week and compete to win. The thing I like about this team is it has a really good attitude. That’s a huge part of it. I think that is going to help this team be as good as it can be.”