It’s not uncommon for a football team to experience two seasons in one. Sometimes the year gets off to a promising start, then implodes due to injuries, bad chemistry, bad coaching, or bad luck. And sometimes a season starts slowly while a team struggles to find a rhythm and identity, but then figures things out and turns a proverbial corner.
The latter pretty much explains what Taft High football went through in 2014. The Toreadors had many players getting their first taste of varsity, and the cohesion and camaraderie needed to be successful wasn’t there. In fact, after a particularly humbling 44-10 loss to Harvard-Westlake last Sept. 19 that dropped the team’s record to 1-3, Coach Deron Braswell made a radical decision.
“What we did was decide to start over,” Braswell said. “We didn’t game plan for (Fairfax of Los Angeles), but went back to basics.”
The Toreadors won that game against Fairfax — on the road no less — and four of the next five. The only loss in that stretch was to eventual West Valley League champion Birmingham. But Taft came out of that potential quagmire to finish the regular season at 6-4, finish second in league, and make the City Section Division I playoffs.
That may not seem like much on the surface, especially with a program of Taft’s history that includes a 1998 City championship. But Braswell, entering his third season, sees Taft returning to a competitive level it hasn’t reached since its last league title team of 2010.
“What we’ve tried to do before was set the tone for what we wanted to be as a program. We got rid of about 40 kids the year before, tried to install things we thought were important to the program. Where you see it working is this: I can now be out of [the weight room], there can be no coaches out there, and you can hear the team leaders talking as if they are coaches. If we put our ear to the door and listen to what’s going on out there, if they see person out there not working hard, they will stop the whole workout and the entire team will do up-downs or pushups, because one person’s not doing what they’re supposed to do. That’s the way a team’s supposed to be run.
“I’m a coach, I played football. I don’t care who you are — you can love me all you want, but you’re gonna get tired of hearing my voice. They’re not gonna get tired of hearing each other. If they say it and police themselves, I’ll never have to punish them at all. I want them feel they have some ownership in this program. This year we don’t have a bunch of kids who hadn’t played varsity. We have a bunch of kids who went through a season. So everything clicks a little more smoothly now.”
Most importantly, for Braswell, it should be a much smoother year at quarterback. Last year’s starter Chris Duncan showed flashes of talent as a junior, passing for 2,117 yards and 24 touchdowns (against 13 interceptions). But, like so many others, it was his first year of varsity. This season he comes in with complete knowledge of the playbook and the full backing of the coaches and players to run the show.
“It’s his team,” Braswell said. “I think he’s put himself in a position where he can have a special year leading this program. We’ll see what happens when the ball’s kicked off. But I just think, right now, if I had to say to say I’m going into a football season and Chris Duncan is my quarterback, I feel more safe than with any other senior quarterback I’ve ever had.”
Duncan, 17, who is 6-4 and weighs 180, displays a high level of confidence in himself as well.
“I’m willing to get in somebody’s face if I have to,” Duncan said. “I am a nice guy, but you have be like that sometimes — and not be afraid to be like that.”
He has a plenty of offensive help. Running back Darian Albrecht, who rushed for 444 yards and three touchdowns last season, is expected handle a heavier workload. Duncan also has several returning wide receivers including a healthy Gerod Johnson, who was limited to four games last year because of injuries.
It is the defense that requires more restructuring. All-City defensive lineman Alex Evans graduated, as did talented linebackers Anfernee Aguado and Damon Wiggins. But among those back are all-league cornerback Jharon Neal and all-league defensive end Eric Dinsmore to keep Taft in games.
At 6-0 and 210-pounds, Dinsmore — 17 and a senior — might seem smallish for a defensive lineman-linebacker hybrid. But he can be a force on the field; 36 of his 66 tackles last year were solo tackles.
His confidence level for the upcoming season is also higher.
“I played against some pretty big guys last year and was able to hold my place,” Dinsmore said. “This is my second year of varsity. There’s always things you can improve on, but I do feel we’re all used to this environment now. We’ve progressed a lot. I feel we’re ready. We’ve got the playbook down.”
Players and coaches here respect the fact that Birmingham has won or shared the last four West Valley League titles. But the Toreadors also believe that last year’s second place finish in league shows they are not that far from being back on top.
Getting off to a better start against the same nonleague schedule as last year — starting Aug. 28 at Canoga Park — would prove to others how far Taft has, indeed, come along. But the Toreadors do enter 2015 as more of a known quantity, one eager to show it can play a full season, not just half of one.
“I feel like this year, all-around, we’re gonna be a great team — offense and defense,” Dinsmore said. “It feels like a full team, moving as one.”
“Last year I was shaky and nervous. Now I’m gonna step out there with confidence,” added Duncan. “I had my one year to get all the bugs out. Now it’s on.”