The question isn't how good will the Casa Grande High School varsity football team be? Just a little over a week into practice, the answer is obvious — Casa Grande will be very good. The tougher question is how good will the Casa Grande football team be in relation to the several other good football teams in the talent-ladden North Bay League?

The Gauchos start finding out the answer to that question on Sept. 27 when they begin league play with a home game against long-time rival Montgomery. Between now and then is a tough ore-league agenda hat includes, Eureka, Heritage and Napa.

Casa Grande head coach Trent Herzog believes the answer to the tough question will be that the Gauchos can compete with the best the NBL can throw at them. "If we stay healthy, focus on the little things and improve every day, I like our chances," he says.

Staying healthy, while important, especially to several key individuals, may not be quite the issue it was last season when Casa Grande went 7-4 overall and 5-2 in its first year in the NBL. Both league losses — to Rancho Cotate and Cardinal Newman — came in its last four games after the Gauchos had suffered a number of injuries, especially to its offensive line. "They (injuries) are part of football," Herzog says, "but we have more depth this season."

Casa Grande has a multitude of talented athletes, but all discussion begins with senior quarterback JaJuan Lawson, the latest in a long line of outstanding Gaucho quarterbacks. "He's special," Herzog says. The coach isn't the only one who thinks that way. Even before beginning his senior season, Lawson had had 15 scholarship offers from Division 1 schools. Most have been to play quarterback, although a few colleges have expressed interest in the 6-foot, 1-inch 195-pound speedster as a defensive back. Although hampered by an ankle injury for the last four games of the season, Lawson still passed for 1,860 yards last season, completing 110 of 170 passes. He had a quarterback rating of 108. He also ran for 550 yards, averaging 5.34 yards per carry. He passed for 17 touchdowns and ran for eight more.

Lawson's talents are a given. Where the Gauchos are anticipating improvement is on the offensive line. Lack of depth hurt last season when Casa was forced to use All-League running back Elijah Qualls at center after a series of injuries decimated their offensive front. Those injuries also forced two sophomores, Brendan Jackson and Peter Parrick, into prominent roles. They are back, bigger, more experienced and better.

"Jackson (6-feett, 2-inches, 285 pounds) could be the best lineman the school has ever had," Herzog says. "He is tough, works hard and is dedicated. He's a football player."

He is also an example of why the Gauchos' new depth is important. On the second day of practice, he suffered a meniscus injury. "We're not certain how serious it is yet," Herzog says. "Hopefully we'll be able to get him back soon."

The coach says Parrick (6-feet, 4-inches, 290 pounds) is also a talented lineman. "He has tons of potential," the coach says. "He worked hard in the off season to lose 25 pounds."

Another important lineman is junior Greg Poteracke (6-feet, 3-inches, 270 pounds). "We're real excited about his potential," Herzog says. Poterache will start at tackle opposite Parrick when Jackson is healthy. Meanwhile, he will be shifted to guard.

Another probable starter at tackle is senior Alec Runge (6-feet, 1-inch, 225 pounds). "He is much improved," says Herzog. "He is solid. He doesn't make mistakes."

Anchoring the line at center will be junior Julian Lopez (5-feet, 10-inches, 225 pounds). He came up from the junior varsity midway through last season. "He may be the strongest man on the team," says Herzog.

Providing the depth that may already be needed are senior Nick Pleinnikul (6-feet, 3-inches, 280 pounds), Senior JR Jeffries (5-feet, 11-inches, 190 pounds), junior Tanner Shimek (6-feet, 2 inches, 220 pounds) and junior John Parnell (5-feet, 7-inches, 215 pounds).

"We feel our line dep5h is a lot better," says Herzog. "We're young, but we're experienced and they're all athletes."

Lawson isn't the only skill player who will benefit from a deeper offensive line. John Porchivina (6-feet, 1-inch, 215 pounds) made an impressive debut last season as a junior, rushing for 703 yards and 10 touchdowns. "He's as good a running back as there is in the area," Herzog says. "He is explosive and he can catch the football."

The coach believes that senior Cody Hughson (5-feet, 11-inches, 200 pounds) can also be an offensive weapon and says Casa Grande could use both he and Porchivina in the same backfield in a two-back set.

When it is time to go to the power game, Casey Longaker will be in the game at fullback. "He is a great lead blocker," Herzog says. Senor Daniel Greisen (6-feet, 2-inches, 215 pounds) is also an outsanding blocker from the fullback spot.

The one offensive area where Casa Grande is inexperienced is wide receiver. "But we have some talented athletes," says the coach. Among those who will targeted for Lawson passes are Jonathan Weber, Andre Kupelian, Zakk Molina, Brad Freitas and Malcolm Pinson. All are seniors.

One of the Gauchos' top receivers could be tight end Miles Gardea (6-feet, 3-inches, 215 pounds) an exceptional athlete who can block as well as receive. "He could be our ace in the hole. He can do multiple things well," says Herzog.

Seniors Kyle Chase (6-feet, 3-inches, 230 pounds) and Rogelio Brito (6-feet, 2-inches, 195 pounds) will also get playing time at tight end.

As good as the Casa Grande offense is, the strength of the team may well be its defense, led by a group of linebackers that, as a unit, could be among the best in Herzog's era at the Big House.

Longaker and Gardea in the inside are big, strong, intelligent football players. "I've never had two who are good as they are," says Herzog. "They are great athletes."

Shimek, junior Logan Fehler and a pair of impressive sophomores, Nick Jensen and Andrew Floerke provide solid depth.

Porcivina and Hughson give Casa Grande a pair of quality outside backers. Both are fast and strong. They were both in the rotation at linebacker last season. Senior Jason Christianson will see playing time at linebacker as will Freitas, who will also play at safety, along with junior Kevin Donohoe, who is coming up from the junior varsity. Molina, Weber and Kupelian will man the corners with Pinson and junior Andrew Blair also in the mix.

Casa Grande's best defensive back is Lawson. The Gauchos limited his time on defense last season, but Herzog says he will play a lot this fall. "He is going to play defense in passing situations and whenever we need him," the coach says. "He'll also return kicks and punts. Whenever the game is on the line, JaJuan will be in there."

Greisen is being counted on to be a stalwart on the defensive line as he moves outside to end from tackle to take advantage of his pass-rushing abilities. Chase, Brito and Runge will be in the rotation at the other end spot.

Inside at tackle, the Gauchos have size and depth with Pleinnikul, Parratt, Jackson, Poteracke, Julian Lopez, Jeffries and Parnell all expected to get playing time.

Others who will help and are being counted on to step up as the season progresses are Elias Manesis, a junior linebacker, who was the junior varsity Most Valuable Player last season; Brent Eger, a junior who gives Casa Grande a good back-up quarterback; Sebastian Dervieux, a senior who provides depth at linebacker and wide receiver; Jaleel Lawson, a talented junior athlete, who is still trying to come back from an injury suffered last season; Karl Arcarno, a first-year senior who is still learning the game; Joey Markam, a junior who is still recovering from a shoulder injury; Spencer Merillion, a senior receiver; Jeff Anderson, a senior punter; Tyler Liapitan, a senior lineman who could help, but is in the process of being cleared to play; John Curran, a junior pass rushing specialist; Karl Turner, a junior line prospect; Colin Reeger, a junior, who provides depth on the offensive line; Dom Salvatierra, a junior offensive lineman; Ryan Slack, a junior defensive/offensive end; and Ayden Wyre, a junior lineman.

A not-so-secret, but very important, weapon for Casa Grande is junior kicker Matt Abramo. "He could be the best kicker the school has ever had," says Herzog. "He loves what he does and takes it seriously. He's been to several camps. He can punt, but he is a great kicker." Completing the Gaucho kicking unit are long snapper Kupelian and holder Freitas.

It all adds up to an impressive cast of players, but how will they hold up under the bright competitive glare of the NBL? The Gauchos, after a tough pre-league trial, start finding out on Sept. 27 when a horde of Vikings invade the Big House.