McALLEN — For the McAllen Memorial Mustangs, the 2020 season will be a measure of their ability to adapt to changes, big and small, that will define the upcoming campaign.
Memorial, which returned to the practice fields Tuesday along with McAllen High and McAllen Rowe, changed districts as part of the latest UIL realignment, moved from Class 6A to 5A and had to implement new health and safety protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But perhaps the biggest change for the Mustangs to overcome on the field this year will be in the backfield, where the team will be without former all-state backs Campbell and Trevor Speights — who are playing at Navy and Notre Dame, respectively, this season — for the first time since 2011.
However senior running backs Michael Lewis, the team’s leading returning rusher, and Andrew Salinas are among many who believe that will make Memorial’s ground-and-pound rushing attack even more difficult to defend.
“Backs here at McAllen Memorial are a big thing. To be a part of that and be running with the ball in my hands, man it’s a great thing and I’m excited to have the ball in my hands,” Salinas said. “It feels great and amazing. I’m excited for this season and I’m ready to start putting points on the board for this team.”
Lewis and Salinas will be the featured backs in a deep Mustangs backfield.
Lewis, who started at fullback last season, tallied 561 yards and two touchdowns on the ground on 80 carries, making him the team’s second-leading rusher in 2019. Meanwhile, Salinas, who logged lots of snaps at receiver last year, ran for 110 yards on 25 carries.
“It’s an honor, it really is an honor. To have both (Campbell and Trevor) Speights come through here and getting to follow in their footsteps, I’ve been working really hard to try to live up to those expectations,” Lewis said. “I’ve been on varsity since my sophomore year so I’ve grown up with getting close to the seniors. Now being (a senior), I’ve learned so much from those guys that I feel like I’m able to take that on and spread that.”
The Lewis-Salinas duo averaged 6.4 yards per carry last year, which the two might need to continue given the number of senior departures at skill positions on the Memorial offense.
The Mustangs will have to replace their three-leading receivers from 2019 as well as quarterback Joseph Lara, who is playing college football at Division III Southwestern University.
But the Mustangs backs like what they’ve seen so far from the team’s young receiving corps and crowded quarterback room.
“We’ve got some great receivers — Aiden Chapa, Sebastian Cortez, Marcos De La Cruz — we have a lot of good ones coming up. We’ve got some great new sophomore and junior offensive linemen too,” Lewis said. “Our quarterbacks are battling it out — we’ve got three of them battling it out right now — and they all want it, so it’s pretty competitive. I think we’ll have a good offense this year.”
Memorial head football coach Bill Littleton said the team’s quarterback competition was “too close” to declare a leading candidate for the starting role yet.
Defensively, however, the Mustangs’ biggest strength in 2019 was getting after the opposing team’s quarterback, a trend that senior linebacker Christian Sanchez thinks they can continue to improve upon.
Sanchez, an all-district pick at linebacker as a junior, returns after leading Memorial with 157 tackles last season as well as 24 hurries and six sacks, which both ranked second on the team.
He and junior defensive tackle Marcos De Ochoa, the 2019 District 30-6A Newcomer of the Year, will lead an experienced front seven that should set the tone defensively with its physicality and speed up front.
“We learned from our mistakes (last year) and it was a big season for me. I’ve just got to work on cardio and strength,” said De Ochoa, who added he thought the Mustangs’ interior defense will be one of its strengths in 2020. “We’ve just got to keep hitting, no stop and no surrender. Now, we have more speed and more strength and a lot of new faces.”
Senior safety Omar Salazar anchors the secondary for Memorial after tallying two picks and nine pass deflections a season ago, which should make the Mustangs’ pass rush even more effective with tight pass coverage.
The Mustangs may also be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the latest round of UIL realignment, which has placed them in the 10-team District 16-5A DI and the five-team West Zone featuring McHi, Rowe, La Joya Palmview and Donna High.
Memorial has maintained the same high expectations of pursuing another district championship at all costs. After earning a three-way split of the District 30-6A title, though, the Mustangs are fired up for the opportunity to play in a district championship game and for a district title they wouldn’t have to share in a shortened season where every game will mean more.
“We absolutely have what it takes to do it again with our running, physicality, quarterbacks and defense,” Salinas said. “We’re excited for that. I didn’t really like having to share a district championship, we’d like to be the ones on top.”