When sophomore defensive tackle Jeff Miller of Westlake Village Westlake started practicing with the varsity football team this season, the skepticism from teammates was loud and clear.
"Oh, you're Jimmy Miller's little brother. I wonder if you can do anything," was an initial response.
Thirteen weeks later, Jeff Miller is more than holding his own playing alongside his USC-bound brother. He has four sacks and is an important contributor for the unbeaten Warriors (12-0).
He's a 6-foot-4, 220-pound 16-year-old who has been forced to grow up quickly competing against older players.
"I've had to learn so much this year," he said. "I feel like one of the guys now."
Another rising sophomore at Westlake is 15-year-old running back Jeff Rapoport. He suffered a broken knuckle in the second game, recovered and is averaging 10 yards a carry.
Like Miller, Rapoport has learned from a successful older brother. Jim Rapoport was an All-Southern Section baseball player at West Hills Chaminade and is a freshman outfielder at Stanford. "I saw what he had to do," Jeff said.
Coaches don't mind using sophomores on varsity if they are physically and mentally mature. But it's a tricky decision. Playing a sophomore who loses confidence after making mistakes could hinder development.
This season, there has been a strong group of sophomores at the varsity level. Among the most impressive:
* Michael Herrick, quarterback, Valencia. The Foothill League has two of Southern California's best senior quarterbacks in Sean Norton of Newhall Hart and Nate Longshore of Canyon Country Canyon, but Herrick almost upstaged them. He passed for a school-record 3,171 yards and completed 65% of his passes in helping Valencia reach the Division II quarterfinals.
"I never imagined he'd be this poised and get a grasp of the offense so quick," Coach Brian Stiman said. "I'm a little bit astounded."
* Toby Gerhart, running back, Norco. The numbers Gerhart keeps producing are stunning. Last week, he rushed for 374 yards in 38 carries and scored six touchdowns, including the game-winner as time expired, in Norco's 49-47 victory over Temecula Chaparral. In a 10-day, three-game stretch earlier this season, Gerhart rushed for 1,047 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Sophomore sensation is a phrase that doesn't do him justice.
* Stafon Johnson, running back, Dorsey. There are people who say Johnson is the best sophomore running back in the state. He has rushed for 1,170 yards and 18 touchdowns while sharing star status with junior running back Jeremiah Johnson.
* Garrett Green, quarterback, Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. There's a general belief among coaches that teams don't win championships with sophomore quarterbacks. Green could prove everyone wrong. Athletic, fast and possessing excellent instincts, Green has Notre Dame in the Division III semifinals. "Normally, sophomores aren't able to make good decisions," Coach Kevin Rooney said. "He does."
Green was intercepted in a last-minute defeat to Santa Fe Springs St. Paul earlier this season but didn't let the mistake derail him. "I stepped back, looked at the film and tried to fix myself for future games," he said.
* Ryan Jackson, kicker, West Hills Chaminade. In a position filled with stress, Jackson made 11 of 16 field goals, including two from 46 yards.
* Chane Moline, fullback, Mission Viejo. How good is Moline? Just ask the opposing linebackers who hardly enjoy trying to tackle the 6-1, 225-pound human locomotive. An 88-yard touchdown run against Long Beach Poly was evidence of his talent and ability.
* Ken Ashley, running back, Anaheim Servite. Ashley rushed for 147 yards against Division I semifinalist L.A. Loyola. He gained 122 yards against Santa Margarita and picked up 87 yards against Huntington Beach Edison. An ankle injury slowed him late in the season.
* Major Culbert, linebacker, Harbor City Narbonne. In two City playoff games, Culbert stripped the ball twice from quarterbacks on blitzes and caused plenty of commotion.
* C.J. Gable, free safety, Sylmar. Gable probably watches video of Baltimore Raven linebacker Ray Lewis because he hits players with Lewis-like vengeance. Coach Jeff Engilman compares him favorably to the best defensive players he has coached in 29 years.
* Audarrius Bailey, running back, Arcadia. Bailey rushed for 1,590 yards and scored 20 touchdowns, sending notice that he's no ordinary sophomore.
Eric Sondheimer can be reached at email@example.com