LONGMONT — Graduation and tough schedules present annual challenges to prep football teams, so starting the season by losing a top player that was expected to be a major contributor is an unfortunate blow.
The sustained success of the Longmont Trojans has shown they can overcome adversity, and they hope this year won't be any different. The Trojans are returning a strong linebacker corps, but it was even more imposing before the loss of Avery Peterson. The senior will miss the year with a wrist injury, but the good news is there's still plenty of talent at the position.
"We were very excited about having (Peterson) back. He started in the state championship as a freshman," said head coach Doug Johnson, who is in his 18th season at the helm. "That was a tough loss. Avery was a lot of things but the biggest thing was he was versatile and smart. He made all our calls, all our checks, he got us in the right defenses.
"That being said, we are excited with who we have back."
That starts with three seniors — Austin Hassler, Danny Nichols and Jason Schneider. The loss of Peterson is significant, but the Trojans feel confident that they can overcome his absence with the rest of the team.
Johnson is also changing the defensive scheme to a 3-4, which means the 5-foot-11, 225-pound Schneider will go from defensive line to outside linebacker. Johnson likens his new role to what DeMarcus Ware brought to the Denver Broncos.
"He was on the line with the Cowboys but was pretty good as a linebacker with the Broncos," Johnson said.
Schneider is looking forward to the new role.
"It's a challenge," said Schneider, who began practicing with the linebackers at the start of camp. "I was a little rusty but I feel like I have more space getting in to get the quarterback."
Quarterback is another position Longmont returns experience. Junior Oakley Dehning is back after compiling nearly 1,500 rushing and passing yards last season, while junior Drake Engelking returns after rushing for 583 yards as a sophomore, including 56 in the first-round playoff loss to Lewis-Palmer.
It wasn't the ending Longmont wanted to 2016. The Trojans were 6-5 and felt they left some wins on the field, especially down the stretch.
That has them motivated for this season, and they'll be tested in the first six games, starting with defending Class 3A champion Pueblo East on Sept. 1.
"Last year we were lacking in leadership but we'll be ready to give Pueblo East a run," Nichols said.
A good start could mean a special season for the 2017 Trojans.
"Football's really fun when you play well. It's an awesome game, you learn life lessons, but it's a hard game," Johnson said. "We did a lot of young things last year that were a little frustrating but experience will help us."
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