By GEORGE HAIRE,FOR THE ARGUS-COURIER
Published: Sunday, August 25, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.

Defending North Central II/Bay Football League champion St. Vincent began organized practices under veteran coach Gary Galloway with a sense of urgency. Its season opener is scheduled for Aug. 31 in Eureka against Saint Bernard’s Catholic and time is not on the Mustang sideline.

Derek Murphy (16) brings speed and experience back to the St. Vincent backfield.

Galloway has a major task of retooling at the quarterback position for the Mustangs this season with the graduation of record-setting signal caller Mitch Sheppard, who guided St. Vincent (10-3) to the North Coast Section finals last season. Sheppard, now a walk-on with a roster spot at the University of California, Davis, took virtually every snap last season, and finished the campaign with over 2,000 passing yards from the St. Vincent spread formation for the second consecutive year.

The leading candidate to replace him in the early going is senior Jack Richardson, who transferred from Petaluma last year and sat out five games before playing his first varsity game. He was an option at running back and receiver, but played his way to a spot on both sides of the ball before the end of the season. He carried the ball six times as St. Vincent came together late in the season, but did not attempt a single forward pass. Becoming a starting quarterback will be a crash course.

“Jack has been a leader since he came over here,” explained Galloway. “He has picked up the read offense, and we will be more of an offensive threat when he runs. He wants to do this, and the kids really respect him. The chemistry on our team is great at this point.”

Richardson has taken over the controls without a hitch. “He has been able to read the short pass routes, and that has been how we move the ball,” said Galloway. He did very well in the Petaluma passing league.

“I have complete confidence in him.”

St. Vincent, surprisingly, had a balanced attack from the explosive spread formation last season, and, while movement through the air will be a question mark, two players who did most of the heavy lifting in the ground game are back for another season.

Leading ground gainer Derek Murphy returns for his senior year after rushing for 1,176 yards on 204 carries to earn first team All-League honors. Not always the first offensive option in 2012, the 165-pound back will be counted on even more this year to pick up important first-down yardage. The dependable Murphy began workouts in great condition after running with amazing balance in his break-out junior campaign. In all of his carries, the hard-working running back turned over the ball only two times.

George Sammon (175) emerged as a strong running back in his sophomore season, and he will be counted on to fill in for Murphy.

Sammon ran for 581 yards including seven touchdown runs. In one of the more spectacular running plays of the 2012 season, Sammon broke free against rival Tomales on a 77-yard scoring play. It will also be possible to use a double running back set with both veterans in the backfield.

The versatile duo of Sammon and Murphy combined for 36 catches and should be prime targets in the passing game again this season. They are joined by senior Patrick Garcia, who made 20 grabs and scored five touchdowns for the Mustangs. It was Garcia who caught a quick slant over the middle in the final minutes against the California School for the Deaf in the NCS semifinal contest that extended the season for St. Vincent.

Chris Faulknor and Austin Salizzoni also earned valuable experience, and both are battling for a starting position as a wide receiver. Zach Sitchler played in all 13 games and returns as a junior, along with Kyle Dannewitz. “Zack is much faster this season,” said Galloway. “He has been on a running program, and it shows.”

“I’m anxious to see how Chris plays this season,” said Galloway. “He really improved as the season moved ahead. He also told me if we need a back-up quarterback he is our man.”

St. Vincent is deep on the line where most of the players will be counted on to go both ways. Junior Tyler Schmidt (185) has moved into the starting center position, and will be flanked by Jordan Pech, Jack Gatfield, and Marco Ricci.

Sophomore Will Tarrant (200) has made a strong impression on the Mustang staff, and should make the varsity squad.

Senior Danny Rodriguez (310) has surprising speed and will be a one-way starter as needed. “Tyler Schmidt and Justin Sablik have both looked good since moving up from the junior varsity,” Galloway said. The St. Vincent defense should be solid with nine regulars returning. Linebackers Murphy, Sean Healy, and Sitchler will alternate with Richardson on key downs.

“The kids are really hitting, and we have to tone them down a bit,” said a pleased Galloway. “Paul Gregorian, one of our linebacker candidates, got dinged up in one of our early workouts, but there is a chance he could play against Saint Bernard’s. It will be up to our coordinators.

“We’re optimistic about the season. I like our league, and it should be balanced again. Calistoga could be an early favorite because they have the most kids coming back,” noted Galloway.

St. Vincent will get its first test when it host a three-way scrimmage with El Molino and Drake on Friday afternoon at 5 p.m.