Fortunately for Tom Richards, eight starters return on defense for his Sylmar High football team. In any other season, he might not be able to compensate for the loss of a would-be ninth starter who could be the team's best linebacker.
The player--Sean Hampton--happens to be one of the best running backs in the Valley area, however.
Richards has delivered the verdict: Hampton's defense rests. "Sean is going to get the ball 30 to 40 times a game, so we are saving him for offense," Richards said.
Which is exactly what Pac-8 League opponents are expecting.
"They'd be crazy not to use him like that," said Al Dellinger, coach of defending league champion Venice. "Hampton is their offense."
The 5-10, 190-pound senior was the Valley's leading rusher last season, gaining 1,306 yards on 193 carries and scoring 13 touchdowns. Hampton was a member of The Times' All-Valley team.
Hampton wouldn't be bad on defense, either, Richards said.
"He would start," Richards said. "I still want him in there on the goal-line defense, though, because he's an extra hitter in the lineup."
Hampton will continue to distinguish himself as perhaps the most skillful in a league deep at skill position performers.
Venice quarterback Ernie Soto is the returning player of the year. In leading the Gondoliers to an undefeated Pac 8 record last season, he threw for 12 touchdowns and more than 1,200 yards.
Westchester's Keith Bowen was an all-league linebacker last season. He is also a running back, and the combination of his size (6-2, 205) and ability make him a prize target for Division I college recruiters.
University has three top players at positions designed to advance the football. Marc Rogers (5-11, 165) is a returning second-team all-league wide receiver. He he will be joined at receiver by Paul Richardson (6-3, 175), an all-league pick as a linebacker last season. Moni Davis (6-2, 215) gives Coach Joe Sedia a bruising fullback to pound away when bombing away isn't working.
"University has some humongous, great athletes," Poly Coach Kevin Kennedy said. "They're like a basketball team out there. I saw them during the summer against Carson, and I think they're going to surprise people with their personnel."
Kennedy best player at Poly is Joey Speakes (6-1, 175), a transfer from Granada Hills. He will start at quarterback and free safety for the Parrots.
Reseda tight end David Wilson was an all-league selection as a sophomore, and he could be one of the best at his position--or any other--in the area, according to Coach Joel Schaeffer.
"He's very versatile," Schaeffer said. "He could play any skill position on the field."
With the possible exception of Soto at Venice, however, Hampton is the player whose individual skills may dictate just how well his team plays. Richards thinks Hampton is up to the task.
"He's the best running back I've coached in 29 years," Richards said. "We're going to run the heck out of the ball because of him."
Hampton could be even more effective if Adrian Valdez receives academic clearance this week to play. Valdez, who was academically ineligible the past two seasons, could give Sylmar a passing game to go with See Sean Run.
How much of a difference would Valdez make?
"He'd make Sean one to two touchdowns better," Richards said. "Without Valdez, we're going to see a lot of eight-man fronts. With Valdez, we'll be able to burn some people."
And maybe free Sean Hampton for some defense.