LAKE STEVENS — Austin Murren was the fourth or fifth receiving option last season in Lake Stevens’ high-powered spread passing attack.
Now, at least for the time being, the senior figures to be quarterback Conor Bardue’s go-to target.
Murren, a hybrid between tight end and receiver, knew his role would increase significantly this fall.
The graduation of star receivers Hunter Eckstrom and Jake Rasmussen left senior Anthony Hutchinson as the lone returnee from last year’s sensational trio of wideouts. And with running back Blake May also having graduated, Murren is the team’s second-leading returning receiver behind Hutchinson.
But after Hutchinson suffered a leg injury during last Friday’s jamboree that will sideline him for at least the first part of the season, Murren is now option No. 1.
“A guy going down like that is never easy,” Murren said. “But we’ve experienced this before. … There’s just always guys stepping up on this team. It’s always next man up.”
That’s been a familiar theme recently for the Vikings, who entered last season having graduated eight starters on both sides of the ball from their 2015 state-semifinal team.
Yet despite the roster turnover, Lake Stevens continued its recent run of success without skipping a beat. Numerous first-year starters rose to the occasion last fall, helping the Vikings outscore league opponents by 40.5 points per game en route to a fourth consecutive Wesco 4A title and a second consecutive state-quarterfinal appearance.
The Vikings face a somewhat similar challenge heading into this season, with just four returning starters on each side.
The difference this time is the widespread youth. Whereas many of last year’s first-time starters were upperclassmen, Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri said he plans to start four sophomores on offense this fall and four or five sophomores on defense.
“It’s as young as we’ve ever been,” said Tri, who is entering his 13th season at the helm.
But like last year, the Vikings expect to reload rather than rebuild.
“Every year, it’s just the next man up,” Hutchinson said while leaning on crutches after Monday’s practice. “A lot of young kids are stepping up.”
Hutchinson, a two-way standout at receiver and cornerback, said he expects to be sidelined about four weeks or so. The dynamic 5-foot-10, 165-pound playmaker hauled in 46 receptions for a team-high 849 yards and 11 touchdowns last year during a breakout junior season.
“He’s the fastest kid on the field,” Tri said. “He’s probably the most agile kid on the field. He has the best vertical leap and might be the lightest on his feet. And that’s on both sides of the ball. … He’s a huge weapon for us.”
As Hutchinson recovers from injury, Murren takes over as the leader of an otherwise young Lake Stevens receiving corps.
“(He) is a savvy veteran and a great football player,” Tri said. “In my mind, he’s the most underrated guy we have. He’s ready for a breakout season.”
Quarterback is one position where the Vikings don’t have to worry about inexperience.
Bardue, a senior, was named The Herald’s Offensive Player of the Year last fall after a spectacular first season as the starter under center. Replacing Lake Stevens legend and current University of Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason, Bardue completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 3,023 yards and tossed 41 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Hutchinson and Murren said their star quarterback has gotten even better this offseason, with both noting his improved arm strength.
Bardue said he’s been extra-motivated after his brilliant junior campaign ended on a rough note with a five-interception performance in the Vikings’ state-quarterfinal loss to Skyview.
“It was just kind of under my skin the entire offseason,” Bardue said. “I just can’t wait to get back out here and get back (to) where I was, and prove myself again that I’m capable of doing better than that last game.”
The battle to replace May at running back includes junior Jackson Grafe and speedy senior Kayshawn Mounarath.
“We kind of have a two-headed monster there with Jackson and Kayshawn,” Tri said. “Both of them are great backs. Either one of them could start for us, and they’re both going to get reps and carry our workload. I just don’t know which one has really emerged yet, but they’re both dang good.”
Matt Sevao, a senior, anchors a young offensive line that includes three sophmore starters after four starters graduated from last year’s unit. Sevao also is a force on the defensive line, where he set a school record with 12 sacks last season.
“I think he’s one of the best defensive linemen in the league,” Tri said. “He’s just got a great motor, uses his hands really well, understands how to get off blocks, uses leverage and just sniffs the ball out really well.”
Tri mentioned 6-foot-6, 295-pound senior defensive lineman Jevon Morris as another player who could help offset the team’s youth. Full recoveries from Hutchinson and injured senior linebacker Austin Calvin also would provide major boosts.
“I feel like we’re going to compete for a league championship again, even as young as we are and lacking some depth at key positions,” Tri said. “Now, granted, some things have to fall in place. We have to get some guys back. We’ve got to stay healthy late in the season.
“But if those things happen and we’re able to do the things that we’re capable of, we should definitely make another deep run and have a legit shot at winning the Wesco title again.”