Prep football storylines: Who can challenge Big 3 in Southland?

The high school football season begins this week. A look at storylines and other issues to watch for:

How will college coaches returning to the high school ranks fare in their transition?

Victor Santa Cruz of JSerra and Ben McEnroe of Thousand Oaks are first-year head coaches who enjoyed great success during their college coaching days at Azusa Pacific and Cal Lutheran, respectively. They’ve brought with them longtime college assistants, so re-creating their college success should be no sweat, right? Well, first they aren’t allowed to recruit players, so that could be an issue, but both are strong leaders and figure to do well. Another switching from college to high school is Servite’s Chris Reinert, who most recently coached at the University of Colorado.

Will St. John Bosco and Mater Dei enjoy their non-Southland schedules?

Both powerhouse programs would rather play local teams but volunteers are dwindling for nonleague games. St. John Bosco is facing all out-of-state opponents. Mater Dei gets one local game against Corona Centennial. It’s tough to build excitement when your fans have no interest in your opponent other than selling the idea of competing for a fictional national title if you go 5-0 in nonleague games.

Which school will break through to join the Big Three in the Division 1 semifinals?

Last season it was Mission Viejo joining Mater Dei, St. John Bosco and Centennial. This season the candidates are Sierra Canyon, Mission Viejo and Orange Lutheran. That’s it folks. Good luck on anyone else joining the crowd.

What will it take for a team other than Birmingham to win the City Section Open Division title?

It will take a monumental upset. Yes, the Patriots will once again struggle at times during their annual nonleague schedule of Southern Section teams. They travel to Texas for what should be a blowout loss, but they are a veteran team that could surprise in nonleague games. They have too much speed, size, experience and talent to be beaten in the City playoffs. They haven’t lost to a City team since 2017, a span of 34 games. Last year was the moment to do it. Venice came close, losing in overtime. The real question is who will finish second? Garfield, Banning, Carson, San Pedro and Granada Hills are in the running.

Which player could cause the Internet recruiting gurus to go crazy?

Junior quarterback Husan Longstreet has transferred from Inglewood to Corona Centennial after passing for nearly 4,000 yards last season. Saw him in a summer passing competition and can’t remember a teenager with a stronger, more precise arm in years. Imagine what kind of havoc coach Matt Logan is going to unleash with a quarterback who can throw deep and also run if needed. If he’s not a five-star quarterback, they need to discontinue rankings. He had a summer injury that limited his participation, so learning the offense will take time.

Which position is the strongest in the Southland?

For quality and big-time prospects, it’s linebacker. College coaches Lincoln Riley of USC, Ryan Day of Ohio State, Nick Saban of Alabama and Marcus Freeman of Notre Dame would jump up and down if junior Noah Mikhail of Bonita announced he were picking their school. He’s already proved you don’t have to attend a powerhouse to get recruited. St. John Bosco is loaded with top linebackers. Nasir Wyatt of Mater Dei had 14 sacks as a sophomore. Kamar Mothudi of Los Alamitos and Weston Port of San Juan Hills are well-respected major college prospects. Defensive backs is the next strongest position.

Who is the most interesting teenage football player in the world?

That would be Granada Hills defensive tackle Oliver Taylor, who got his pilot’s license before his driver’s license when he turned 16. Taylor is 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, has a 4.4 grade point average and recorded nine sacks last season. He could fly coach Bucky Brooks to one of his speaking gigs for the NFL Network, though defensive coordinator Justin Berenson said: “I always tell him I don’t know if I want to get into the plane with him.” Said Taylor: “I’m looking forward to my future in both football and aviation.”

What’s a bad trend for Southern Section?

Teams are scheduling weaker nonleague opponents so they can make sure they have enough wins to be considered for an at-large playoff berth yet don’t get placed in a higher division based on rankings. It’s bad for players hoping to prove themselves against top opponents. It’s bad for fans wanting to see top matchups. It’s also going to be bad for the playoffs when a team is placed in a wrong division that’s supposed to be based on competitive equity and rolls through the division so it can scream, “We’re champions,” when it played nobody.

What’s a positive trend?

After several years of dwindling football participation, whether because of the COVID-19 pandemic, safety concerns or both, numbers appear to be on the rise. Lower-level teams are seeing increases. It’s still up to coaches to create a positive experience, in part by showing attention not just to the college prospects, but to the players who can’t run a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds as well. In the last statewide survey, football participation was up by more than 4,000 to 89,178 for 2022-23.

Can schools emphasize the need for athletic trainers?

It has been an ongoing issue for years — the lack of athletic trainers at public schools. It really is unacceptable for safety reasons. Athletic trainers helped save the life of a Venice football player in the opening game last season when he suffered a severe head injury. Any extra money, or even fundraising, should go toward making sure teams have access to a certified athletic trainer. They are worth every penny in both providing support for prevention of injuries and reassurance if a medical emergency happens. They know what to do.