By Nick Giannandrea
College of the Sequoias' football team has received a big lift as it prepares to open Valley Conference play Saturday against consensus state No. 13-ranked Modesto.
Starting quarterback Ryan Johnson has been cleared to play after suffering a partially torn left (non-throwing) shoulder during the Giants' last game, a 45-17 loss to Shasta on Sept. 29. COS (1-4) was off last week.
"Our bye week came at the perfect time," first-year COS head coach Joe D'Agostino said.
Johnson was injured on the third play of the game against Shasta, getting speared by a defender at the end of a 14-yard run.
The extra week off provided time to recuperate for Johnson, who transferred to COS after initially signing with San Jose State following a standout career at Hanford High. The Bullpups went 26-3 with two Central Section Division III titles and a state Division IV-AA championship in two-plus seasons with Johnson as the starting quarterback.
Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound freshman, has passed for 737 yards and seven touchdowns while rushing for 177 yards and two scores in four-plus games for COS, which will host Modesto in its homecoming at 7 p.m. at Mineral King Bowl.
"We go as No. 12 goes," D'Agostino said. "Ryan is a different level player. He makes us a different team."
The bye week also gave COS assistants, including offensive line coach Ryan DeSantos and offensive coordinator Cannon Sanchez, an opportunity to provide more individual work to a reshuffled offensive line that features two new players and different starters at all five positions.
After losing one starting tackle to injury and the other to discipline during a 37-13 loss at Santa Rosa on Sept. 22nd, the Giants were forced to move starting guards Henry Wong (Fresno) and Issak Ramirez (Tulare Union) out to tackle, center Kirubel Taddasse (McKinney) to guard, reserve Ramon Ruvalcaba (Hanford West) to center and reserve Quinton Goss (Edison) to guard.
All the changes contributed to COS struggling to run the ball during its past two games, netting 79 yards on 39 attempts against Santa Rosa and 89 yards on 37 attempts against Shasta.
"It's been a little bit crazy, but they've looked a lot better this week in practice," D'Agostino said. "The kids are starting to understand their roles a little better. We're hoping for more productivity upfront and more protection for Ryan."
The Giants will need improved offensive production against Modesto, which jumped up seven spots in the state rankings following a 28-18 victory over previously sixth-ranked San Mateo on Sept. 29.
The Pirates (3-2) were the preseason favorite to win the Valley Conference title behind returning All-Northern California running back Devan Bass, who rushed for 1,326 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Bass has rushed for 644 yards (an average of 128 per game) and six touchdowns this season behind an experienced group that averages 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds along the offensive line.
"They are the biggest team we will face this year," D'Agostino said. "They are very physical and very powerful."
Modesto is also battle-tested having faced a nonconference schedule featuring five teams all ranked among the Northern California Top 10: wins over No. 8 Sierra (42-17), No. 10 American River (27-21) and No. 7 San Mateo, and losses to No. 2 Laney (31-17) and No. 3 San Francisco (49-16). The Pirates are ranked No. 5 in NorCal.
"Modesto has established itself as one if the top teams in the conference over the last four, five years," D'Agostino said. "Playing them right out of the gate will give us a good feel for where we're at. It's like I told the kids, in every boxing match, there's a chance you can knock someone out. We have our work cut out for ourselves, but we have a boxer's chance."
Despite only one win so far this season, a 35-27 defeat of Siskiyous on Sept. 15, D'Agostino has been pleased with the level of institutional and community support for the Giants. The newly-formed rooter section dubbed Giant Pride Nationwide will have their coming out party during Saturday's game.
"We are 1-4, but there are things to be proud of. We're moving in the right direction," D'Agostino said. "The roots are taking firm for us to be competitive and not the free space on the bingo card."