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The Idaho Press is counting down to the start of the 2020 high school football season by spotlighting all of the teams and the top players from the Treasure Valley. Next up is Caldwell.

Steve Fleshman knew that rebuilding the Caldwell football team was going to be a multi-year project.

That’s why after a winless first season, the Cougars’ head coach is far from pushing the panic button. Now with a team that is full of underclassmen, the work can begin toward starting a winning tradition that has long eluded the program.

“We had 28 seniors (last year) and I was the third head coach for that group, so we knew we were going to have to piece things together for that group,” said Fleshman. “For us, our juniors that are going to be seniors is going to be a real small class, so it’s building those young guys and get them going.”

Only seven seniors return from last year’s 0-9 team, although Fleshman says he’s added a few players to get that class up to 10. For a program that hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2005 and went 16-74 over the past decade, having a small senior class certainly presents its challenges. But it also presents opportunities for a lot of younger players to set the tone both this year and the next couple of seasons.

“The biggest thing is the leadership role,” Fleshman said. “You’ve got these young guys who are exciting to watch and do exciting things, but they’re the ones looking for someone to guide them. So they don’t quite know how to take that role. And we’re like ‘you guys are the dudes, make these guys follow you.’ So I think that ultimately is going to be the thing, who steps up and takes the reigns of leadership?”

Fleshman said there are a number of players — across multiple classes — who could step up and take that role.

Senior linebacker and running back Ezra Hernandez, who has joined a Navy program and has been doing a lot of work with them this summer, is one player the coach points to. Junior Cameron Morales is another one, who Fleshman said can be a dominant tight end.

“He’s going to be a kid that’s going to cause a lot of problems if we get our quarterback situated,” Fleshman said. “We’ve got a couple kids that are doing real well with that right now. If we’re able to get him the ball, he’s going to be fun to watch. He’s a 6-(foot)-2, 6-3 basketball kid. He’s an athletic-bodied kid and not afraid of contact, so he’s fun to watch.”

As for the quarterback situation, Fleshman has a few options to choose from. Senior Mason Martin moves over from the wide receiver position, to vie for the starting spot under center, while junior Ilias Velasques sophomore Alex Sauceda and freshman Zaylor Bruegeman are all in the mix as well.

A place where the Cougars youth might be best exemplified is along the offensive line, where Fleshman said all five starters could be sophomores, with a couple of juniors thrown into the mix.

Defensively, the Cougars started nine seniors last year, which Fleshman said wasn’t necessarily a good thing. After multiple coaching changes throughout their careers, they weren’t always on the same page. With some returners who were able to get reps in on defense last year, Fleshman said the Cougars have “parts and pieces that are going to be better than anticipated by a lot of people.”

With several new players having to step up, the coach also hopes that some of those communication issues can be solved.

“We’re going to be the exact opposite than what we were last year,” Fleshman said. “This year we’re going to start eight or nine sophomore, freshmen combinations of kids with a couple of juniors and maybe a senior mixed in there. Last year it was all these seniors that had played under multiple programs in multiple years. So sometimes when the game gets going they revert to things they did before and sometimes the page was wrinkled.”

Despite being young across the board, Fleshman is happy with where his team sits.

“We like the incoming class of freshmen, there’s a lot of athletes,” he said. “A lot of kids they play multiple sports. We got a lot of wrestlers. We got a lot of kids that are real physical. Now it’s just them going on the right page and getting them all to play as a unit.”

John Wustrow is the assistant sports editor of the Idaho Press. He is a Michigan native and a graduate of Indiana University.

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