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Lucas Graves, Jayce Knapp and Payton Dart have giant shoes to fill in Wilsonville's offense.

PMG PHOTO: DEREK WILEY - Wilsonville running back Lucas Graves, quarterback Jayce Knapp and receiver Payton Dart are the new faces of the Wildcats' offense.

Wilsonville quarterback Jayce Knapp has not set out to replace Nathan Overholt.

"I'm just trying to carry on what he left," Knapp says of Overholt, the Gatorade Player of the Year, who passed for 3,832 yards and a state-record 59 touchdowns last season to lead the Wildcats to the Class 5A state championship game. "I'm just trying to make sure that he can look back and be happy with how I'm doing."

Knapp is not the only Wilsonville football player with giant shoes to fill.

The Wildcats graduated 35 seniors, including leading receiver Jonah Gomez, who caught 59 passes for 1,145 yards and 15 touchdowns, and running back Cooper Mootz, who had 1,322 total yards and 17 touchdowns.

"Cooper has always been a mentor to me," says Wilsonville junior Lucas Graves, who has 300 yards on 59 carries this season as the Wildcats lead running back. "I always looked up to him. I will still watch him on film and be awestruck. Finally stepping into his shoes and playing varsity football is really interesting. I feel like me and him have a similar run style. I try to take a lot of the things that he did. There were so many good running backs that we had last year, Cooper, Trevor (Antonson), Cade (Edmondson), all of them had different things, and I've just been trying to take what they were good at."

Another junior, Payton Dart, is leading the Wildcats receivers this season with 21 catches for 305 yards and three touchdowns.

"Jonah, he was a really good person to look up to," Dart says. "I watch his highlights every now and then. During the season last year, he was a huge help on route running and how to get releases off corners. It's been a huge help, especially going into this year."

PMG PHOTO: DEREK WILEY - Jayce Knapp has passed for 806 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.

Dart, Graves and Knapp all grew up playing football through Wilsonville Youth Sports.

But their talent was not evident right away, at least not for all of them.

Graves, listed at 5-9, 170 pounds on this season's Wilsonville football roster, was a lineman until he got to high school.

"I just wasn't very athletic," Graves says. "I was kind of a 10 play kid for a long time. In youth football, you have to get 10 plays, so I played like that for a long time."

In the eighth grade, Graves and Knapp began training with Erik Jernstrom in Lake Oswego, four days a week before school.

"That was a big factor for me, going from lineman to running back, Graves said.

PMG PHOTO: DEREK WILEY - Lucas Graves has rushed for 300 yards for the Wildcats this season.

In high school, Graves, Knapp and Dart led Wilsonville's freshman football team to an undefeated season.

Last year, as sophomores, they split time between the JV and varsity teams, usually getting into the game in the second half on Friday nights when the Wildcats had a big lead.

"A rep is a rep, but it's not the same starting rep like you get at the beginning of a game," Knapp says. "When a team is down by like 40 points they kind of give up."

"It's still a lot different than JV, especially the game speed," Dart says.

Knapp gained a lot from watching Overholt.

"I learned so much last year from him," Knapp says. "We would always talk, and during practice he would help me with a bunch of stuff, especially when it comes to reading defenses. He'd help me a lot with RPO (run-pass option) stuff that we would do and audibles that I would need to make, scouting teams. You watch him on Friday nights, and he was making plays like every single time. Having someone like that to look up to is definitely a motivator and obviously some huge shoes to fill."

Knapp also was motivated by competition as he and sophomore Chase Hix battled all summer and even into this season for the starting quarterback position.

"Me and Chase have been friends for a super long time," Knapp says. "We knew this day was eventually going to come where it was going to be either me or him. The whole experience was just motivation for me to get better."

COURTESY PHOTO: GREG ARTMAN - Payton Dart runs after catching a pass against Crater on Sept. 6.

The young Wildcats got off to a rough start this season, getting shut out at home 40-0 to Crater.

Wilsonville had scored 78 points against Crater in the playoffs the year before. Overholt threw for 438 yards and six touchdowns in the game.

"We just missed some simple things when it comes to throwing, blocking, all over the board we just had small mistakes that added up," Knapp says.

The loss was a wakeup call.

"Practice was completely different," Graves says. "We didn't want to have another game like that ever again."

The Wildcats regrouped to win 41-7 at Churchill in week two. Knapp, who was named the starting quarterback, threw for 250 yards and four touchdowns.

Graves had 131 total yards and a touchdown. Dart caught six passes for 64 yards and a touchdown.

Back home the following week, Wilsonville dominated Cleveland 66-7 on Sept. 20. Knapp completed his first eight pass attempts and threw for 227 yards and four touchdowns as the Wildcats led 38-0 at halftime.

In Wilsonville's first four games, Knapp has passed for 806 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"I've watched this group grow up since they were in the third grade," says Wilsonville coach Adam Guenther, whose son, Colby, the Wildcats starting strong safety, is also a junior. "You've always known they've got the talent. Now, it's just a matter of if they can put the discipline with it. I think you saw that first game that you had a bunch of guys growing up relied on just raw talent, and now all of the sudden they're no longer the biggest, no longer the fastest. They want to learn. They're starting to ask questions and they're starting to see what we see."

Derek Wiley
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