J.R. Tolver's football credentials are well-established. He's the all-time leading receiver in San Diego State football history who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the 2003 NFL Draft.
But that doesn't mean he'd discount what occurred at the small school off Newport Coast Drive last September, when Tolver's Sage Hill School football team overcame a 28-9 fourth-quarter deficit for a 33-31 nonleague win over Tri-City Christian.
"That's probably my signature win, really as a coach and as a player," Tolver said.
In his second year as coach, Tolver's squad nearly became the first team in program history to beat St. Margaret's. His team went 8-3 and advanced to the CIF Southern Section East Valley Division playoffs for the second straight year.
More excitement in Tolver's third year might depend on the play of the line, both offensive and defensive. Tolver has just two returning starters on the offensive line in sophomore center Lucas Ellison and junior right guard Nick Francoeur, and none on the defensive line.
"We still have really good skill players," Tolver said. "Our offensive line and defensive line are going to have to understand that in order for us to be any good, to take advantage of the skill players we have, they're going to have to step their game up and allow us to do that."
Here's a position-by-position look at the 2011 Lightning:
Quarterback: Senior Taylor Petty moves here out of necessity after the graduation of two-year starter Randall Mycorn. Petty was the Lightning's leading receiver a season ago, averaging more than 19 yards a catch on his way to 43 catches for 829 yards and eight touchdowns. He was a first-team All-Academy League selection.
Now the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Petty, who has no previous quarterback experience, will be the one airing it out.
"Taylor's the leader of our team," Tolver said. "So it'll be a pretty easy transition, I think, to step into the quarterback role, which is by default the leadership role. He's a good player, strong, fast, physical, all the things you can ask for as an athlete. We want to capitalize on those abilities, so it's hard to justify putting one of your best players at a position that can be under-utilized if you don't have somebody else to complement them. Hopefully putting Taylor back there puts our team in a position to be successful offensively."
Tolver said junior Harrison Ray (5-11, 150), who does have previous quarterback experience but is working his way back from a broken collarbone, will be the backup.
Running backs: Taylor Ross, the most successful running back in program history who ran for school single-season records of 1,869 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, has graduated and is now at USC. But Tolver has confidence in speedy senior Eric Cheng (5-7, 145), who ran for 531 yards and five scores a year ago and averaged more than eight yards a carry.
Charlie Kim (5-7, 155), a junior who also had several explosive runs in limited action last year, will also get his fair share of carries. So will senior Michael Schidlovsky (5-9, 165), who has been at Sage for four years but is in his first year playing football.
"[Schidlovsky] is a really good hockey player," Tolver said. "He's been on national teams and gone overseas to play hockey, so he's used to playing fast and physical. He's a good runner. He's fast and he's pretty strong, so we think he's going to help."
Junior Tom Fenner (5-10, 160) figures to play fullback, though Tolver said Fenner has good hands and could also line up in the slot.
Receivers: Senior Conner Ascher (5-8, 145) returns and could take over as Sage's top receiver. Ascher, who will play as the "Z" (strong-side) receiver in Sage's scheme, had just nine catches for 56 yards a season ago. Tolver said senior Jack Markman (5-8, 145) will step in as the "X" (weak-side) receiver.
Freshman Beau Roth, Ascher's step-brother, is also in the mix for catches
Tight end: Senior Ford Hanour (6-1, 210) returns as starter here. Hanour was the team's second-leading receiver in 2010, with 16 catches for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Tolver will also try to get freshman Parker Reposa (5-11, 180), a former Newport Beach Little League standout, on the field as tight end.
"He's never played football before, but he's a stud athletically," Tolver said. "He's already one of the fastest guys on our team."
Offensive line: Ellison (6-0, 215) is a returning starter at center, as is Francoeur (5-10, 160) at right guard. Both were second-team all-league selections last year.
Tolver said sophomore Jack Bick (5-11, 245), the biggest player on the team, will likely start at left guard. There he will replace the Academy League Lineman of the Year, graduate T.J. Danner.
The tackles are more up in the air, but Tolver said juniors Ryan Morgan (5-10, 175), Jorge Ordaz (5-10, 205) and Jason Cowan (5-8, 200), along with sophomores Tom Ficcadenti (6-2, 200) and Brit Valdez (5-11, 205), are all jockeying for playing time.
"We're still playing with the depth chart a little bit, just because we lost T.J. last year," Tolver said. "He is going to be impossible to replace, but we have a couple of young guys who we hope step up."
Defensive line: The Lightning will change to a four-man front under new defensive coordinator Scott Thompson, but all four linemen will be first-year starters. Fenner and Francoeur are slated to start at the end spots.
Tolver said Valdez has the edge at tackle, and either Bick or Morgan will play noseguard.
"[Bick]Jack is as strong as an ox," Tolver said. "He just has to work on his ability to be aggressive consistently. If you [tick] himJ off, he'll show you that he's [ticked], but we want him to play [ticked] off all the time and keep getting better."
Cowan, Ordaz and Ficcadenti are also in the mix.
Linebackers: This is an area of strength for the Lightning, with three returning starters. Hanour is back at middle linebacker, with senior David Fenner (5-8, 150) at one outside 'backer spot and Kim at the other.
David Fenner was a first-team all-league selection a year ago, when he was in on a team-best 104 tackles.
"David is always, always around the football no matter where it is," Tolver said. "He had over 100 tackles last year and I wouldn't be surprised if he had 150 tackles this year. That's the type of player that David Fenner is."
Schidlovsky will back up Hanour at middle 'backer.
Secondary: The Lightning feel comfortable in their pass coverage as Cheng and Ascher are both three-year starters at cornerback. Ascher had four of the Lightning's seven interceptions last year.
Petty returns as well at strong safety, and the only newcomer is Ray at free safety. Tolver said Joe Melita (5-10, 160) is also in the mix at free safety.
"We feel very confident and comfortable with the guys we have on the back end," Tolver said.
Special teams: Melita is set to replace Ross, the league's Kicker of the Year in 2010. Hanour is the long-snapper, and Petty the holder.
Tolver said Melita will also likely have punting duties, though he wouldn't be surprised to see Cheng or Petty punting either.
"I'm really contemplating being a little unconservative when it comes to our punting game," Tolver said. "We have a package that we like to use in short-yardage third-down situations, and I kind of want to merge that offensive package with our punt unit."
Cheng, Schidlovsky and Kim are the kick returners.