The Indians return nine starters on offense and six starters on defense from a team that finished fourth in the six-team Tri-Valley Conference and missed the Class 4A state playoffs for the second consecutive season.

Photo Credit: JIM BESEDA/MOLALLA PIONEER - Senior running back Isaiah Bilbrey earned first-team, all-league honors last season despite the fact Molalla finished fourth in the Tri-Valley Conference and missed the Class 4A state playoffs for the second consecutive season.Molalla senior running back Isaiah Bilbrey is convinced that the Indians’ football program has everything in place for a breakout season this fall.

With the Sept. 5 opening of high school football still more than three weeks away, it would be hard to find anyone in the Tri-Valley Conference who doesn’t think they have at least a puncher’s chance of qualifying for this year’s Class 4A state playoffs.

But when Bilbrey says “breakout,” he means this could be the season that Molalla not only makes the playoffs, but also makes a run at a state title.

“I honestly think that this is our year,” said Bilbrey, a first-team, all-league selection as a junior. “I think we have a shot to go really far this year. I’m hoping state, but I don’t want to think too far ahead.

“I just want to think about the next game and just win, win, win, get to the playoffs, and then, next step, state.”

There are plenty of reasons for Bilbrey’s optimism.

The Indians return nine starters on offense and six starters on defense from last year’s team, so there is no shortage of experience, particularly at the skills positions on offense and the linebacker and defensive back positions on defense.

It also was an encouraging sign when 45 players showed up on the team’s practice field for last week’s voluntary workouts -- two weeks before the OSAA’s official Sept. 18 starting date for practice in all fall sports.

Then there is Bilbrey, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound senior who was last season’s featured running back in Molalla’s single-back, spread offense. He was recognized as one of the Tri-Valley’s top running backs despite the fact that the Indians went 2-3 in league and missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons.

“Isaiah is a very hard-nosed runner,” Molalla coach Kaleb Mitchell said. “He’s one of those ball carriers that brings the contact with him. He doesn’t wait until it shows up. So, he’s going to attack you, kind of old-school, Walter Payton-style. He’s very, very physical.”

Last season, Bilbrey was the team’s leading ground gainer, picking up most of his yards running between the tackles.

This season, he expects to be more productive than he was a year ago, and because of improvements he said he has made regarding his speed and quickness, he’s hoping to do a bit more running outside the tackles.

“Last year, I was more of a power back,” he said. “This year, I’m looking for more balance between speed and power.”

Senior Cody Kibbons also will see time at running back as Bilbrey’s backup, but also in a few new two-back sets.

“It’s unwise for us not to play some two-back offense with two kids that talented,” Mitchell said. “And even though we have a slough of good wide receivers, if we can make other teams respect the run, it’s almost like cherry picking.

“I also want to be able to bounce Isaiah out to slot sometimes, because catching the ball out there one-on-one with a defensive back isn’t fair. If he runs over defensive linemen and linebackers, and now he’s matched up with a little guy, it’s bad news for you.”

Bilbrey also is expected to see significant playing time on the defensive side of the ball as a strong-side linebacker, although Mitchell wants him to learn the other three linebacker positions so he can step into any one if needed.

“If someone goes down, we want to be able to move him and have him know what’s expected,” Mitchell said. “He’s a good enough athlete where he should be knowing that stuff.”

How crucial is Bilbrey to Molalla’s overall game plan, especially on offense?

“He’s definitely an important piece,” Mitchell said. “Luckily, we are deep enough that if we didn’t have him, we could probably still be just as successful. Would it be as easy? Heck, no, but we’re lucky that his backup is awfully dang good too.”

Bilbrey said the Indians went into least season with high hopes, but their playoff chances were dashed by a 27-24 home loss to Estacada in Week 5 and a 35-21 loss at North Marion in Week 8.

“It was kind of a bittersweet thing in that we won more game than the year before, but we still didn’t play up to expectations and that was a disappointment,” Bilbrey said. “We had enough success that it made us that much more confident, so that was a step in the right direction.”

Tight alignment

In another potential tweak to the offense, Mitchell is thinking seriously about using a tight end and that Keaton Franco might be a good fit.

“Keaton is a defensive lineman and I want to move him to tight end,” Mitchell said. “He played offensive line last year, but he seems to have a skill set where moving him out there on the edge makes sense. He can run a little bit, he can definitely catch, and he’s physical enough to block.

“We didn’t play at all with a tight end last year. We were strictly spread. If we wanted to get physical, we went two backs.”

Staff development

Brent Haberly, the former University of Oregon linebacker, is one of four assistant coaches who have joined Mitchell’s staff this season.

Haberly, who played for the Ducks from 2002-06, will serve as the Indians’ linebacker coach, while Todd Swan is the new defensive backs coach, Troy Jazkinsky will coach the junior varsity offensive and defensive lines, and Jason Swigart will help oversee the JV offensive line and linebackers.

For the record

After last season, the OSAA stripped Estacada of its three victories, including a 27-24 road win at Molalla on Sept. 27, because 20 fall sports coaches for the Rangers failed to comply with state certification standards.

As a result, the Indians were awarded a victory by forfeit, changing their final record from 4-5 overall and 2-3 in league to 5-4 and 3-2, although Mitchell still considers the Estacada game as a loss and the season as a sub-.500 season.

“It would have been different if we would have found out about the violation sooner and maybe gone to the playoffs,” Mitchell said. “But we didn’t find out until mid-January. We already ate our loss.”

-- Jim Beseda / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

(503) 829-2301

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