With the track record and the history the West Texas Drillers have, they must be included in the discussion when it comes to projecting post-season and championship contenders for the Rio Grande Football League in 2017.
The Drillers have never won fewer than 10 games, nor lost more than three games, in a single season and that shouldn’t change in 2017 as they begin their first season in the RGFL.
“We fully intend to be competing for the RGFL Championship this season,” Drillers owner and defensive coordinator Michael Heetland told Developmental Football USA. “We set a high standard for ourselves and anything else will be considered coming up short.”
“We have always had great battles with the Scorpions and I expect nothing less,” Heetland said. “The Liberty looks to have stirred up things in Lubbock, getting some talented vets and young talent. I don’t know a lot about Curry County or the Rush at this point and they may end up contenders, but I see a tight race in the East between ourselves, the Scorpions and the Liberty.”
The Cats and the Rush were part of the RGFL one year ago, but this will be the first season in the league for the other three teams in the East Division.
“We are excited about the competition,” Heetland said. “As far as the entire RGFL, I know the El Paso Armor always puts a tough squad together and we will face them in El Paso mid-season to see how we match up. The Borderland Warriors seem to have made some strides this off-season and they are way better than their record showed last season. They definitely compete until the final whistle blows, so we expect the competition to be great. It will prepare teams for a dogfight in the playoffs.”
Last season, the Drillers carried a perfect record deep into the playoffs until they were knocked off 24-18 by eventual Minor Professional Football League and AAA National Champion, the Texas Bullets, in the league semifinals.
With several key players from one year ago returning on all three sides of the ball for the Drillers, West Texas is well-equipped to make another deep run this season.
“We bring back a strong core from last season and we have added some youth and even more firepower to what was already an offense that could score from anywhere on the field, and a very stingy defense,” Heetland said. “I think our biggest improvement over this off-season was adding even more team speed.”
Offensively, the Drillers return their three-headed monster in the backfield in quarterback Adrian Pertile and running backs Isaac Baca and Monte Anderson.
“Those three look to pick up where they left off last season, torturing opposing defenses,” Heetland said. “Pertile is a true dual-threat quarterback and he is one of the fastest players on the Drillers team, and he is also a crafty veteran in the passing game.”
Wide receiver and return specialist Zamir Linton, slot receiver Kris Miller and tight end Matt Casteneda also return to bolster the passing game and right tackle Rick Nunez returns to anchor the offensive line.
A quarterback in 2016, 6-foot-3, 205-pound Derrick Rogers has moved back to his natural position of wide receiver and should provide the Drillers with another jump-ball and big-play threat on offense.
“There are a couple of other receivers to keep an eye on, in Odessa High standout Damon Bars as well as Isaac Watts and Martin Zambrano,” Heetland said.
This off-season, the Drillers have also picked up former Monahans running back, Maurillo “Boogie” Marquez, who could be in the discussion for Newcomer of the Year at season’s end if what he has shown in camp translates on Saturday nights.
“He’s a standout running back and he looks to be a threat from several different spots on offense as well as getting snaps on defense,” Heetland said.
The Drillers defensive unit has ranked No. 2 or higher in the league every year in team history, so don’t look for them to slow down any in 2017.
“The bar is set high here and the guys love the challenge of keeping it alive and creating more opportunities for our offense to put up points and they don’t mind putting some points on the board while the offense is resting either,” Heetland said.
A rookie one year ago, defensive end Chris Finch returns to lead the Drillers defensive line in just his second year with the team.
“He had a monster rookie campaign last season making his presence know from the first snap of the season to the last,” Heetland said. “He was a force on defense and in a long trip to El Paso where we were short an offensive tackle, he filled in a recorded the highest grade of any offensive lineman that week.”
While there’s a lot of football to be played to see if they meet this mark, the Drillers linebacker unit could prove to be the best in the RGFL. The Drillers return both starters at inside linebacker in veterans Russel Anderson and T.J. London and they’ve made some adjustments at outside backer that should strengthen the unit even more.
“Anderson is the spiritual and emotional leader of this defense and the players respect every word that comes out of the U.S. Marine’s mouth,” Heetland said. “T.J. is one of those freak-of-nature guys. At 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, he will make plays that leave many in awe. He is a great athlete and has a nose for the ball.
“Outside linebacker Wayne Dickerson moves over from fullback last season to help set the edge for our defense alongside a promising newcomer at the other outside linebacker position, Danarius Brisbon, out of Lewisville Hebron High School and UTPB.”
Seasoned veterans return at safety in Jamal Johnson and Devon Zimmerman, both who are well known for their physical play and their ability to turn an offensive miscue into a Drillers touchdown.
“They have a ton of knowledge and know our defense inside out,” Heetland said. “They will have the guys lined up correctly in the best position to be successful.
“Also, returning cornerback Robert Murray had a great season last year and you didn’t hear his name called a lot, which in most cases on defense is a bad thing, but not as a cornerback. He got better every week and has continued to improve over the offseason.”
Those three are joined by rookie cornerback Robert Ridge to round out the secondary for the Drillers.
“He is a diamond in the rough,” Heetland said. “He literally popped up at practice out of what seemed like nowhere, but this Andrews High School product quickly impressed the coaches and players with his sound technique, speed and ball skills. The former two-way player for Andrews, Ridge, will look to focus on defense this season and has fit right in to our aggressive style of play.”
On special teams, the electric Linton will also be joined by Marquez as well as Damon Bars in the return game and the Drillers expect Adam Richards to continue to be very reliable in the kicking game and punts as well.
“This guy kept us in some close games and put a couple of games away for us last season with several long field goals and had a couple of 50-plus yarders along the way,” Heetland said. “He is a touchback master on kickoffs which always pays off when trying to contain opponents speedy return guys.”
Look for the Drillers to give the RGFL all that it can handle and don’t be surprised if they bring some hardware home later this year.
“We are very excited about where we are as a team and the opportunity ahead of us in the RGFL this season,” Heetland said. “We are looking forward to some great battles with everyone including a renewed rivalry with the West Texas Scorpions.”