PHARR — The PSJA North Raiders have earned a reputation on the gridiron in recent years as one the Rio Grande Valley’s hardest-hitting defenses, which they’ll be looking to lean on in hopes of a return trip to the postseason in 2020.

The Raiders, who finished 2019 at 5-5, narrowly missed a second consecutive bi-district playoff berth, after PSJA North made a surprise trip to the area round in 2018.

North’s blackshirt defense will have to reload and replace eight starters from last year’s squad, including first-team all-state defensive end Aaron Alvarez and safety Seven Sanchez, who was named The Monitor’s 2019 All-Area Defensive Player of the Year.

Raiders head football coach Marcus Kaufmann said the team will rely on a pair of play-making returning starters defensively at the season’s outset: senior linebacker Micah Lopez and junior safety Christian “Cookie” Ramirez.

“The guy we can count on the most is Christian Ramirez, but we call him Cookie,” Lopez said. “He was our starting sophomore defensive back last year and he’s going to be another leader this year. We’re both going to help anchor this defense.”

Lopez, a unanimous 30-6A First-Team All-District honoree in 2019, will present some of the toughest defensive matchup problems across the Valley with his combination of size, speed and athleticism in the middle of the Raider defense.

In two years as a varsity starter, Lopez has tallied 260 tackles and proven to be one of the area’s top run stuffers.

“Every year Coach (Kaufmann) says, ‘We’ve got to get better as a defense.’ Our defense is known as the blackshirts because we’re like hungry dogs out there on the field,” Lopez said. “We just have to be the most physical front seven in our district and in the Valley. As long as we can dominate at the line of scrimmage, we’ll win games and we’ll hold teams to zero points.”

Ramirez, meanwhile, has quickly become an anchor in the PSJA North secondary after racking up 99 tackles and six tackles for loss as a sophomore in his first varsity season. Kaufmann and the Raiders’ other defensive starters believe his quickness and intensity will help PSJA North’s pass defense stay stingy against some talented quarterback competition.

“Playing against the toughest teams is going to show us how good we are. We’ve just got to show them what we’ve got,” Ramirez said. “We’ve been talking about this on Zoom calls. We’ve been talking about how humble we’re going to be and how we’re not going to stop in between whistles. We’re ready to get back out there and ball out.”

Offensively, North will lean heavily on third-year starter and junior running back Isaac Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has garnered a reputation as one of the biggest backfield bruisers in the RGV. The Raiders junior saw his carries nearly double from 114 in 2018 to 204 in 2019, while he picked up a staggering 2,353 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground over that stretch.

In 22 games during the past two seasons, PSJA North is 9-5 in games when Gonzalez crosses the 100-yard rushing mark, making his production an imperative part of the team’s offensive success.

“I’ve been working on getting quicker. I’ve been working on hitting the weights a lot and getting stronger and faster,” Gonzalez said. “I think I’m doing what needs to be done. I want to be No. 1 (in rushing yards) in the whole Valley this year.”

It’s certainly an attainable goal for Gonzalez, as the Raiders’ back has averaged 7.5 yards per carry on more than 300 career rushing attempts.

PSJA North will also have a crop of experienced receivers to help take some pressure off the rushing game this year, too, in senior Deondre Gonzalez and junior slot receiver and slot back John Lugo.

The most interesting position groups to keep eyes on for the Raiders, however, will be quarterback and the offensive line.

Behind center, North will elect to go with either junior Zach Gonzalez or freshman Alejandro Aparicio, both of whom have impressed coaches and teammates in the opening days of camp.

Along the offensive line, senior tackle Ram Martinez will step up as the group’s leader this season as its most experienced returning starter. The unit will need to fill some holes along the interior of both the offensive and defensive lines after losing some starters to graduation, but Martinez is feeling confident after seeing the unprecedented contributions the o-line has seen from underclassmen stepping up so far.

“Running is definitely going to be a big thing, we’ve got Isaac (Gonzalez) in the backfield and this line is different from last year — maybe not as big, but definitely faster — so there’s going to be a lot of speed along the line and we’re definitely going to make holes for him to run through,” Martinez said.

“We definitely have a lot of underclassmen coming in, but they know the roles they’re willing and needed to play. They know they’ve got to sacrifice the time to be able to play with us, but they know what they need to get done and they’re doing it all pretty well right now.”

“Everybody’s going to be useful this year,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody will be.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch