Ja’Quan Gardner has had the attention of the Manteca High football team since the start of summer camp.
The Buffaloes schemed for the record-setting running back from the outset of the preseason, and the preparation showed in a 47-20 Week Zero victory over Central Valley at Ceres High.
No. 2 Manteca limited Gardner – the cousin of former Manteca High point guard Kiwi Gardner – to 117 yards and one touchdown on 15 carries.
“He’s so explosive,” head coach Eric Reis said. “He goes zero to 100 mph in a blink of an eye. He’s not very tall, but he’s a powerful runner; not afraid to mix it up. He’s got the whole package.”
Gardner is a known commodity; a household name throughout the Sac-Joaquin Section.
It’s the pieces around Gardner that give Reis and his coaching staff pause. Central Valley’s offense has evolved into a three-headed monster with the rise in play of quarterback Kendel Johnson and running back/wide receiver Angelo Bermudez.
Central Valley qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs as the No. 15 seed, but its 6-4 record is a bit misleading.
The Hawks have won two straight games and punched with the Western Athletic Conference’s top heavyweights, putting both Central Catholic (No. 1 seed in Division IV playoffs) and No. 4 Patterson on the ropes.
“I wouldn’t say we’re worried. They were so dynamic on offense. It was like, ‘Whoa, these guys are good,’ ” Reis said. “When it comes to the playoffs, you’re going to play good people. You’re not going to play chumps.”
The Hawks are making their first-ever playoff appearance, and while much of the credit belongs to Gardner’s leadership and elusiveness, Johnson might be the difference-maker on Friday night at Guss Schmiedt Field.
The 6-foot, 180-pound senior is part of a new crop of signal-callers, not unlike the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, a former Pitman High standout, and Carolina’s Cam Newton. Each has distinguished themselves as a zone-read quarterback, an athlete equally adept at burning defenses with their arm and legs.
Johnson is no different.
In the film room, Reis sees a much different Central Valley team than the one his team boat-raced in the first game of the season. Hawks coach Jason McCloskey has implemented a split line formation, creating bigger gaps for Gardner, Johnson and Bermudez to blast through.
Johnson simply has to read the rush and then make the split-second decision to either keep the ball, hand it off or pitch it into space.
“It’s been fun to see how they’ve evolved over the season. They’ve put in a few different wrinkles since Week Zero,” Reis said. “They have three superstars on offense and you have to know where those guys are at all times.
“With those huge splits, with the linemen widened out, they let the quarterback run that zone-read with bigger gaps. He’s dancing around and doing his thing.”
Through 10 games, Johnson has proven himself to be a more polished runner than passer. He’s completing just 41.6 percent of his passes for 745 yards, and he’s thrown nearly as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (10). Two of those scoring passes came in a loss to Manteca (9-1).
With the ball tucked, however, he’s as dangerous as Gardner. Johnson has carried the rock 83 times for 870 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 10.48 yards per rush.
Bermudez has 363 yards on 43 carries and has scored 10 total touchdowns. Gardner ranks second in the section in rushing with 2,089 yards, trailing only Ripon Christian’s Andrew Brown.
“Everyone has a gap responsibility,” Reis said. “With the zone-read, you have to do your job. You can’t do someone else’s job. If you do, they’ll make you pay.”
The Buffaloes have been burned before by athleticism. Manteca has lost four consecutive first-round games to Sacramento teams with top-tier talent at the skill positions: Inderkum, 35-21 (2012); Cosumnes Oaks, 14-0 (2011); Vanden, 55-22 (2010); and Casa Roble, 35-28 (2009).
To prepare for another potential playoff tilt with a dangerous Sacramento-area team, Reis purposely scheduled Central Valley, a former Valley Oak League foe. He just never planned on playing them twice.
Once again, the onus falls on the Buffaloes’ defense. The unheralded bunch is playing with confidence following shut-down performances against Weston Ranch, Sierra and East Union to close out its first Valley Oak League championship since 2010.
The defense gave up less than 10 points in those victories, but more importantly, it showed its versatility and discipline in stopping both spread and run-oriented offenses.
“We challenged that group early on,” Reis said. “We knew we’d only go as far as that group took us. We knew our offense would be dynamic, but we had a lot of question marks on defense.”