Loyola may surprise in 2018 - Look for much improved offense, continued advances on defense, strong special teams

The last time a Loyola quarterback received a Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offer was in 2003, when CIF Southern Section Division I Player-of-the-Year SCOTT DEKE '04 received multiple offers before deciding to continue his academic and football careers at the University of Virginia. Deke quarterbacked the Cubs to the CIF Southern Section Division I championship with a title game victory over long time powerhouse L.B. Poly at Home Depot Center. There have been many Loyola football players who were awarded FBS scholarships in the ensuing 15 seasons, but not until this spring has a Cub field general been on the recruiting lists of major colleges.

Senior signal caller NATHAN PRIESTLEY (6' 4", 207) recently received a scholarship offer from Colorado State, and the word in college recruiting circles is that more offers, including from at least one Pac-12 school, are imminent. A prototype athlete behind center, Priestley already has the physical dimensions of a collegiate quaterback. Quarterback coach ARMIN YOUNGBLOOD, who has tutored multiple top prep and college passers, says the sky is the limit for his talented pupil.

So why hasn't Priestley been the frequent subject of conversations about the best returning QBs in the Southern Section? The reason is that the 6' 4" gunslinger suffered two major injuries, one which prevented his participation as a sophomore, and the other coming early in the 2017 campaign. At least one prominent college football recruiter noted that the talented player truly has flown under the radar, but when word gets out about his considerable skills, the senior prodigy's recruitment will blow up. Fortunately, Priestley is full go and completely healed as he prepares to lead Loyola's offense in the fall. It is noteworthy that before last season, he was named the MVP at both the University of Washington and Cal camps. Some schools are taking a wait and see approach in his recruitment, but after a couple of games, it is likely the phone will be ringing off the hook in the Priestley household. Talented junior DAVIS WARREN (6-1, 183) is doing his best to keep the pressure on Priestley. Warren is more than just a capable back up.

The reasons for optimism as the Cubs conclude Spring Practice on Thursday with their Spring intra-squad scrimmage at 3:00 p.m. on Smith Field are not limited to what could unfold with Priestley's potential production. Senior running back HUNTER BALLARD (5-11, 185) showcased his uncommon skills throughout the 2017 campaign. A natural runner with excellent vision and speed, Ballard will be a key component in what is anticipated to be a much more prolific offensive attack. Senior fullback MARCUS AGUILAR (6-0, 216), who doubles as an inside linebacker, is a bruising athlete. He will add punch to Ballard's flash. Junior STEVEN ARELLANO is a hard nosed fullback who will be a major contributor in the backfield.

Last season, Loyola's offensive line did not perform to the level demanded by long time trench coaches P.J. PASCALE '78 and FERNIE HERNANDEZ, but the expectations are considerably higher for the men up front as the Cubs prepare for the 2018 campaign. Two returning starters, senior left tackle SCOTT KASE (6-2, 229) and senior guard EASUS JIMENEZ Y WEST (6-0, 256) are battle proven. Highly athletic junior tackle SAM DOMINGUEZ (6-2, 238) should have a banner year. Senior center DANNY DIXON (5-11, 285) has been one of the pleasant surprises of the spring. The coaching staff is hoping that junior SHANE STROYKE (6-4, 306), who has gained notable power and strength since the conclusion of last season, will be a road grader at one of the guard or tackle spots. Senior technician MATTHEW ALONZO (5-11, 232) will see time at guard.

Senior OSAZE ODIASE (6-1, 237) will start at tight end. He is being counted on in a big way by the coaching staff. Juniors BRENDAN PERNECKY (6-2, 201) and senior DAVID ANAWALT (6-1, 204) make the tight end position one of strength.

The wide receivers will be - in a word - dynamic. The pass catching corps is led by senior ALEX BLAKE (6-2, 201), who had a brilliant junior campaign at free safety and could see some time this fall at outside linebacker as well. Two supremely athletic sophomores, ZAKHARI SPEARS (6-2 1/2, 173) and CEYAIR WRIGHT (5-10, 161), are opening eyes in the receiving rotation. Junior DOMINIC BELISLE (6-0, 174) is another receiver of whom big things are expected. Junior KEVIN PARADA (a Georgia Tech baseball commit) (6-0, 193) might possess the most all around tools of any squad member. He will line up all over the field. A returning strong safety, Parada will see time in the slot, at running back and wing back in an occasional surprise package the Cubs will unveil in the fall. Six-feet-two inch senior receiver PATRICK LARSON will also be in the rotation at receiver.

Last season under coordinator MIKE GILHOOLY '88, Loyola's 'Wolfpack' defensive unit relinquished the fewest average points per game of any stop crew since 2004, which happened to be legendary head man STEVE GRADY's last go-around at the helm of Cub Football. During Grady's three-decade tenure (269-77-6) the 'Wolfpack' ran the 5-2 scheme to near perfection. It worked well in its revival last fall.

The 'Wolfpack' is expected to hunt with the same savagery as it did in 2017. Once again, the defense will be strong up the middle. The centerpieces of the stop crew will be the inside linebacker and safety positions. Aguilar was moved from the defensive line to the Stud inside backer post, where he played with great intensity and effectiveness as a freshman and sophomore. Joining Aguilar in the middle at the Whip position is strong, fiery, athletic senior CHASE BRANIGAN (5-9, 195). The duo is coached by Cub icon, DREW CASANI '91, Loyola's CIF Div. I Defensive Player-of-the-Year on the 1990 CIF Southern Section Division I title squad. You can rest assured that under Casani's tutelage there will be incessant thunder in the box.

With Parada and Blake at safety, the Cubs have two fast, strong and athletic players with a full year of experience under their belts. It is possible that Spears may see time at free safety, allowing Blake to provide support at outside linebacker. Wright, Spears and juniors GREG THOMAS and MICHAEL JONES are all vying for playing time at the corner positions. Secondary coach MARK MacFARLANE '97 is excited about the talent at his disposal in the defensive backfield.

The defensive down three will involve a lot of rotation. The big returnee is Kase, who was recently elected Student Body President. His motor is always at full throttle, and he is expected to build on a solid 2017 campaign. Senior nose guard COLE MILLER (5-9, 182) is undersized but as strong and tenacious as they come. Dominquez is expected to see time on the line, as is hard driving junior BARRET KELLY (6-0, 217). Keep an eye on junior MARIANO UY (5-9, 223) at nose guard as well. He has a penchant for exploding into opponents' back fields with urgency. Odiaze will also see time at tackle.

There are a number of candidates competing for the outside linebacker posts. Among the aspirants are Kase, Anawalt, Blake, Pernecky, and junior CARTER LINK (6-0, 194). Their coach, Dr. JOE VIVO '97, will be sure to have the outside well protected by an aggressive group of athletes.

The recipe for success always includes special teams, and with senior kicker NICHOLAS BARR-MIRA returning after a brilliant season, which included a 51-yard field goal, the kicking game is in excellent hands. Barr-Mira will also take over the punting job, at which he is expected to excel based on the booming punts he is unleashing in practice. The strong-legged kicker is receiving recruiting correspondence from the likes of UCLA and the University of Notre Dame. He is one of the best in the West.

Head coach Dr. RICARDO PEDROARIAS is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the fall, but he is looking for more leadership to develop across the board, continued advancement in the weight room and constant, focused attention to detail. In his first year at the helm, Pedroarias's team finished 5-5, losing three games by a combined total of 10 points.  He is quick to point out that there are no moral victories. This season he is hoping that the close losses are converted to triumphs. The culture change that has been ushered in under Coach Pedroarias's leadership will continue to show on the field.

Final Assessment
Loyola should be much improved on offense. The running game has the potential to be excellent behind an improved offensive line, and the passing game has a chance to be a big factor in the team's success.. The defense is strong up the middle, and there are some talented underclassmen who should be making plays in the secondary. The kicking and punting games should be among among the best in California.