McALLEN — Optimism has been the buzzword at McAllen High this preseason and it’s well warranted.

The Bulldogs are coming off a 3-7 campaign in District 30-6A but have plenty of reasons to be excited to return to the field for a shortened 2020 season amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

McHi returns 24 lettermen, the most of any McAllen high school football program, in Year 2 under head football coach Patrick Shelby, who was named to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football’s “Texas 40 Under 40” list recognizing the top young football coaches throughout the state in 2020.

Shelby, a hands-on head coach and an innovative offensive play-caller, has brought the same kind of high-octane spread offense to McAllen High that offered the foundation for some of the Rio Grande Valley’s top teams in recent memory at Edinburg Vela and Weslaco High.

McHi coach Shelby during football practice on Wednesday, Oct.14,2020 in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com

“It’s awesome. I’m really just like the pilot of the plane it feels like, telling everyone what to do and making things happen,” Bulldogs junior quarterback Hunter Curl said.

“As a receiver, it’s great because I get opportunities everywhere,” junior receiver Quinllion Canada said of playing within Shelby’s offensive system. “You never know when you’re going to get the ball so that’s what’s so fun about it. It requires a lot of focus and endurance because you’re running up and down the field 24/7, but it’s fun to be out there and we have great coaches as well.”

So far, Shelby’s system has meshed well with the Bulldogs, who return eight offensive starters to a unit loaded with playmakers in senior Felipe Magana and Canada, the team’s two leading receivers from 2019.

Magana is a back-to-back all-district honoree after racking up 239 yards and three touchdowns through the air last year, and Canada burst onto the scene last season for McHi after tallying a team-leading 423 receiving yards and five touchdowns as a physical and quick outside receiver that has developed into an elite deep-ball threat.

“It’s fun seeing your teammates also learning on the sidelines and helping each other improve because you never know when you’re going to be called up and when you’re going to be needed on the other side of the field,” Canada said.

“They make my job a lot easier,” Bulldogs junior quarterback Hunter Curl said. “They’re two of the best receivers in the Valley and to have them with me on my team is amazing.”

McHi Felipe Magana during football practice at McAllen Memorial Stadium on Wednesday, Oct.14,2020 in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com1014

The Bulldogs also return a deep offensive line group and the coaching staff expects junior running back Jahir Meza to step up this season too, but the undeniable focal point of the team’s offense will be Curl.

Curl, who split time as the team’s starter as a sophomore appearing in eight games, led McHi in passing (786 yards, eight touchdowns) and rushing (418 yards, three touchdowns). The Bulldogs’ signal-caller should elevate his play with a year of experience under his belt, and excellent chemistry with his receiving corps.

“I’m just grateful to have a great team. They help me a lot and I really appreciate them. From last year to now, we’re for sure a lot better,” Curl said. “It’s gotten a lot better. With the new offensive lineman and returning receivers, we’re going to be really good this year.”

“I like to run and I like to pass, but most importantly when it comes down to it, in the moment, that’s when I try to get it done,” he added.

“Our chemistry is just trust, that’s what it is. He understands that I get open and I can get open, and he understands he can get the ball to me,” Canada said of Curl. “Other than that, it’s just finishing plays and executing. When we’re able to do that, that’s when we score and it opens up opportunities on the other side of the field as well.”

The Bulldogs also asserted themselves as one of the Valley’s toughest, gnarliest defenses in 2019.

McHi returns four defensive starters from a group that surrendered an average of 23.2 points per game last year, making the squad the second-best scoring defense in a deep District 30-6A.

The Bulldogs will be lead upfront by a pair of defensive linemen in senior defensive tackle Cirr Arredondo and junior defensive end Juan Corpus.

Corpus is a physical pass rusher who also helps the Bulldogs seal off outside running lanes, while Arredondo is an explosive and disruptive playmaker along the interior defensive line that can blow up inside runs and get to the quarterback.

McHi Cirr Arredondo during football practice at McAllen Memorial Stadium on Wednesday, Oct.14,2020 in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com1014

“Definitely the coaching staff and bringing in (defensive coordinator) Coach (Ernesto) Alonzo really turned things around. We have a great group of guys and, in my opinion, we have the best defense in the Valley,” Arredondo said. “We work a lot on our pass rush and moves out there. We have a very good d-line coach in Coach (Tracey) Hamilton. He’s a great coach.”

The Bulldogs should be poised to continue building off that defensive reputation earned after holding some of the Valley’s top offenses in check last season as they make the transition to District 16-5A DI, which might be the RGV’s deepest this season.

District 16-5A DI features five teams that made the postseason in 2019, including three teams in McAllen Memorial, McAllen Rowe and Weslaco East that won playoff games at the 6A level last season.

Never deterred, though, the Bulldogs feel like they have what it takes to compete for the district’s west zone title and a coveted postseason berth which would be McHi’s first since 2017.

“I think our mentality has stayed the same. I actually think it’s grown stronger and better,” Arrendondo said. “I think this year we’re looking to be one of the best teams in the Valley and one of the lowest scoring defenses in the Valley as well.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch