The Modesto Junior College football team's running attack will be boosted by two Central Catholic additions in the fall: 1,000-yard running back Julian Lopez (pictured), who also rushed for 20 touchdowns during his senior season; and hand-in-the-ground tight end, which will give the Pirates an additional blocker in their two-back and short-yardage sets. (Samantha Schmidt)

Idea exchange: MJC, Central Catholic take mutual admiration to new level

Ron Agostini

The Central Catholic and Modesto Junior College football programs, both elite at their respective levels, like what the other does.

There’s a mutual admiration with winning, of course. But, like virtually every coaching staff this time of year -- about two months before the 2022 kickoff – they seek to get better.

That requires, among other things, self-scouting and a review of all levels of performance: Coaching, recruiting, player development, scheme, everything.

Accordingly, Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa and MJC coach Rusty Stivers huddled recently with specific ideas in mind.

“We’re hoping to incorporate more of a real tight end,” Stivers said.

“We’re trying to get what we do expanded, and get harder to defend,” Canepa said.

So they exchanged notes, because each does well what the other covets.

Both programs enter the upcoming season in positions of power.

MJC has become a respected state power under Stivers, who became the head coach seven seasons ago after serving as the Pirates’ offensive coordinator since 2006. The former standout running back at Hilmar, MJC and UC Davis has built his fast-tempo NASCAR offense into a perennial state leader in yards, touchdowns, first downs and other offense barometers.

In fact, the Pirates have won 25 games over the last three years, the best three-year run in a century of MJC football.

They do it, for the most part without a pure tight end. The Pirates usually align with their quarterback in shotgun, a nearby running back, and an H-back that executes many of the tight end-type blocking duties. Then they pass or run, doing both quickly.

MJC has developed good H-backs over the years in Jake McCreath (Ripon, Oregon) and Rory Hanson (Modesto Christian, Fresno State) among others.

The NASCAR attack occasionally stalls in short-yardage situations, however, and the Pirates have deployed more two-running-back formations in recent years. Two facts make Stivers’ search for improvement important—the Pirates’ annual schedule, often the toughest in Northern California, and the top-to-bottom improvement in the Valley Conference.

Simply, the Pirates see Central Catholic’s consistent production at tight end as something to emulate.

“I’ve admired how the Central Catholic tight ends are ready to go in college after they graduate,” Stivers said. “They know how to block in tandem with the tackle. I just like their blocking scheme. We’re exploring getting our tight end into a three-point stance.”

Stivers noted how two recent CC tight ends, Johnny Mundt (Oregon, NFL champion Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings) and Nic Saani (Dartmouth) came football-ready for the next level after their time with the Raiders. It didn’t matter that their pass-catching numbers were modest.

“Central Catholic hits and hits on blocking drills. Johnny was pounding on combination blocks. He learned how to run-block at Central,” Stivers said. “The reason Johnny made it to the NFL was because of Central, I feel.”

The power-running attack, often in a power-I formation, is a Central Catholic calling card. While many schools are jet-sweeping and quick-passing to the boundaries, the Raiders have stayed old-school.

And check out the results: Four state titles between 2012 and ’15 and a step up on Oakdale and Manteca since they joined the Valley Oak League. Last year, the Raiders –-behind physical running backs Aiden Taylor (2,128 yards, 38 touchdowns) and Julian Lopez (1,387 yards, 20 TDs) went 13-2, won the VOL, won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II title, won their first CIF Northern California 2-AA title and reached the state finals.

That said, Canepa sees challenges ahead. One is arguably the most difficult schedule in school history, and the other is the Raiders’ promotion to Division I for the playoffs. Taylor and Lopez have graduated, which means CC must replace most of its offense.

The Raiders do possess a returning starting quarterback in 6-foot-5 junior Tyler Wentworth, who Canepa says is perhaps the most skilled QB he has had at Central Catholic.

He’s the linchpin in Canepa’s new point of emphasis. Aligning Wentworth in the shotgun is an idea Canepa wants to consider.  MJC’s hurry-up Xs and Os with a shotgun quarterback is a place to start.

  “We’ve got some good athletes,” Canepa said. “Now we’re trying to get the (opposition) defense to not know how to line up. Advantage us. It would give us a different look. You can run out of it, but it’s hard to get to him (Wentworth).”

Stivers and Canepa have exchanged notes in the past. Canepa remembers how Stivers needed only two seasons to turn around Riverbank’s program 40 years ago.

As for Stivers’ dream of improved power running enhanced by a tight end, he might have a leg up this fall with the rugged Lopez.