SAMOHI — A summer of practice comes to an end this week for Santa Monica High School’s football team, but Head Coach Travis Clark is tight-lipped about what he thinks of his guys.
He knows they’re skilled, calling them his most talented in his three years at the school. He also knows that they are deep, with an offensive backfield that has at least three guys who could start this season. But, he isn’t sure what to expect when the Vikings open the season at Santa Monica College on Friday against Leuzinger.
“I’m getting wise in my young coaching career,” Clark said. “In terms of how they look, I’ve learned that you can’t get a good grasp of what they are really about until you see them on the field.”
When Samohi takes the field on Friday, it will be with a new quarterback in Christian Salem, a senior who has waited three years for this opportunity.
“He’s the guy,” Clark said. “I have 100 percent confidence in Christian Salem.”
Like any first-year starting quarterback, Clark knows Salem will have ebbs and flows. Yet, at the same time, he sees the right combination of arm strength and athleticism in the senior to succeed. It’s just a matter of what happens between his ears as Salem learns to control the offense.
“He’s such a perfectionist,” Clark said. “Sometimes he’s afraid to throw the ball unless he knows for sure that the receiver will be open. At the quarterback position, you have to be a gunslinger. If you throw a pick, you throw a pick. I’ll still be there to support him.”
Fortunately for Clark and the Vikings, Salem has a considerable amount of talent on offense to go around, especially at the running back position.
Leading the way is senior Kori Garcia, who gained 856 yards on 96 carries en route to being named All-Ocean League last year. While Garcia will get the nod as the starter, Clark warns other teams not to sleep on backups London Lewis, a transfer from Servite, and Will Taylor. Paired with fullback Donovan Citrowski, Clark feels any one of them is capable of toting the rock effectively.
“Our running backs are a delight to have on the team,” Clark said. “They are the most experienced group we have.
“We’re going to lean on those guys.”
The other side of the ball will be anchored by senior defensive lineman Chad Wheeler, who has verbally committed to Arizona State. The towering Wheeler recorded five sacks last season and 38 tackles. Clark said that his recruiting process will continue as a number of teams, including USC, have shown interest, but wanted to get it out of the way to focus on the season.
Joining Wheeler will be a deep secondary led by cornerbacks Dylan Muscat and Garcia, who is one of a number of players playing both ways.
Clark has high regard for Muscat, who also plays wide receiver. He said his most valuable asset is his willingness to do what is asked of him by the coaching staff.
“He’s a special kid,” Clark said of Muscat. “He can do so many things well.”
With senior players like Muscat, Garcia, Wheeler and linebacker Chris Collins, Clark finally has a team he can truly call his own. When he first arrived on campus he inherited a team that came up under former coach Zach Cuda. Clark dealt with the situation and slowly built a rapport with the younger players that he hopes bears fruit — and victories — this season.
“There’s no doubt about it, that’s a major factor,” Clark said. “The majority of the locker room are my guys. They understand what it takes to get it done.
“They have developed my personality. Now I can really trust most of the guys I put on the field.”
At least one party won’t be too thrilled to see the Vikings suit up for the opener.
Leuzinger’s Reginald Grant knows full well what the Vikings are capable of. The second-year head coach watched his Olympians fall 42-6 to Samohi last season and expects to see the Vikings come out swinging.
“I expect them to be tough,” Grant said. “They are a program with a lot of tradition.
“They always come to play.”
As for revenge, Grant just wants to see his team improve on last season’s 1-9 record.
“We’re still young, we have a lot to learn.”