The rough road at the start of Connor Astley’s time as the McNary head football coach isn’t getting any smoother.
A week after taking the trip to Medford to take on the South Medford Panthers, Astley and the Celtics (0-3, 0-1) host the OSAA ranked No. 1 Sheldon Irish on Friday, two weeks after current No. 2 Tualatin came to Keizer.
Sheldon (3-0, 1-0) entered the season as the favorite of many to take the state title. They come into the season with an experienced and talented roster with 23 seniors.
After opening the season with a 56-0 win against No. 10 Glencoe, Sheldon topped No. 6 West Linn 35-31. They opened league play with a 41-0 victory against Sprague.
Offensively, things start with quarterback Brock Thomas. The dual-threat senior threw for 1,968 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, but his legs were even more impressive. He was second in 6A with 1,339 yards rushing and also had 18 touchdowns on the ground, leading the Irish to a 9-2 record in 2021.
“You watch on film and you’re like “that is a dynamic runner right there,” and he’s very accurate with his throwing and he’s very good with his decision making,” Astley said.
Last week, he had five passing touchdowns against Sprague, one rushing score and an interception on defense.
Astley also said he’s been impressed with a “stout” offensive line in front of Thomas.
Lined up in the backfield is running back Grafton Robinson. Another of the Irish seniors, Robinson is a three year starter and was first team all-league last season. Sheldon head coach Josh Line has said that Robinson has improved his speed, adding another tool to his elite elusiveness. Robinson had two receiving touchdowns last week for the Irish.
Robinson isn’t the only member of the Irish offense with improved speed, according to Line. Receiver and defensive back Zach McEwen is also said to have improved speed, and is the second fastest player behind Thomas. They are the only two players on the Irish team with 100 meters times under 11 seconds.
Defensively, the Celtics will be trying some new things out, but Astley said it’s more out of necessity than what the Irish are doing. They’re banged up at lineback, Astley said, and he hopes the necessary changes work out.
“I think we can still run the ball against them, that’s our identity,” Astley said. “Defensively I think we can try to keep our guys over the top and rally to the ball.”
While most of their senior talent is home grown, the Irish have transfer Teitum Tuioti, 247Sports’ top Oregon senior prospect. He transferred to Sheldon from Nebraska after his father, Tony Tuioti, took the defensive line coach position at Oregon University, where Teitum has committed. Teitum is an edge rusher who coach Line has said might see the field as a receiver, tight end or running back on offense.
“He’s massive, he’s my size,” Astley said. “He’s a man amongst boys and we’re going to do a few things to try and run away from him and try to take advantage of him. But he’s really good.”
Anchoring that offensive line that Astley was so impressed with is Tanner Thomas, Brock’s brother, protecting his blindside at left tackle. Tanner is 6-foot-2-inches and 225 pounds and was all-conference last season.
Next to Tanner at left guard is Michael Urias, who Astley was particularly impressed with.
The Irish return another all-conference linemen in center Carl Harward.
Tight end and linebacker Luke Leighton led the Irish last season in both receptions, 43, and tackles, 68, and not surprisingly was a first team all-league selection on both sides of the ball. At 6-foot-5-inches, Leighton creates matchup problems and a big target for Brock to find downfield.
Astley knows that they’re in for a test with the state’s top-ranked team coming to town, especially with the injuries defensively.
“They’re a good team, and they’re going to take advantage of what they see,” Astley said. “I’ve got high hopes that our guys are going to keep improving.”