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Sierra goes back to spread
Jeff Harbison reinstalling scheme that helped T’wolves claim 2015 state title
Sierra summer football
Sierra coach Jeff Harbison works with the linemen in a summer practice. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin

Jeff Harbison is back in a familiar role, working with familiar colleagues at Sierra High’s familiar practice facilities.

He’s still getting familiar with the players, who are getting up to speed with the spread offense that brought the Timberwolves so much success in Harbison’s first tour as head coach.

“It’s a challenge not knowing the players, but it’s refreshing to be back out there,” he said. “It’s nice to have a lot of the coaches that I already know and the new people who have come on board have been great as well. We have a solid staff from freshman up to varsity.”

Harbison has a chance to build on his résumé, which includes an 88-49 record (2005-16), two Valley Oak League championships (2009, 14) a Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV banner (2015) and California Interscholastic Federation Division IV-A state title.

His successor, Chris Johnson, led Sierra to its second Section championship in 2019, but the team struggled the last two years with a lack of depth and experience. Under Johnson, the Timberwolves’ veer offense operated out of the flexbone formation.

“It’s night and day from what Coach Johnson,” Harbison said in comparing the two offenses. “They were a run-oriented offense, and our goal is to spread them out and throw the ball, which we hope will open up the run game. We’ve had success in both throwing the ball and running the ball in this offense — we feel comfortable doing either. It’s going to depend on the players we have.”

Harbison and his staff are still sorting out who fits in where on both sides of scrimmage. At quarterback, Arjun Birdi took most of the snaps over the summer. Max Morales is also getting looks behind center, but he’s filling a key role in Harbison’s defense as its hybrid linebacker/safety.

Sierra did not have a chance to face other schools in 7-on-7 contests last month. The team had originally scheduled four scrimmages and a passing tournament, but Harbison called them off because of low turnout in summer practices.

“The knowledge of assignments is pretty limited right now,” Harbison said. “We have to hit it pretty hard when we start back up on the 25th (of July, when official practices begin).”

Numbers have been strong at the lower levels, and Harbison anticipates fielding three full squads. Last year, the junior varsity team disbanded early in the season because of low numbers. The freshman team provided a promising glimpse into the future, finishing 7-3.

Harbison trusts that his coaches will have the players ready for their Week Zero matchup against Hughson on Aug. 19.

Among those rejoining Harbison are Jeff Abrew and Les Wheeler, who both took a break from coaching football after the 2014 season. Abrew is back as offensive coordinator, while Wheeler is again coaching the linemen. There few holdovers from the previous regime, including former defensive coordinator Mike James, who now heads special teams.

Sierra’s first two non-league games may be its toughest, but they’ll both bet at home. Stagg visits on Aug. 26, and the T’wolves travel to Golden Valley (Merced) and Armijo (Fairfield) the following two weeks.

They’ll welcome Modesto on Sept. 16 for homecoming before its midseason bye week.

“It’s going to show what we can do,” Harbison said of the non-league schedule. We’re playing a lot of spread teams, so it’s going to prepare us for East Union and Kimball.”