Ferndale football coach Jamie Plenkovich entered the 2012 football season knowing full well that it wasn't going to be easy to replace six starters on each side of the ball.
He and his coaching staff were going to have to lean heavily on those who were returning to show the newcomers what was expected when they stepped on the football field wearing Golden Eagles uniforms.
Fortunately, he knew he had on good returner on each side of the ball with senior running back/defensive back Alex Conley back.
"He's been a tremendous leader for us since the fall camp opened - on both sides of the ball," Plenkovich said in a phone interview. "He's doing some things he hasn't had to do before, but he's still excelling and playing just as well as he was before he had the burden of being a leader."
Conley definitely came out strong during the first week of the season.
The running back led Ferndale with a career night, rushing for 175 yards and five touchdowns on just 14 carries (12.5-yard average), helping the Golden Eagles to a 49-21 victory over Vancouver (B.C.) Notre Dame on Friday, Aug. 31.
"He played well on both sides of the ball," Plenkovich said. "He was obviously terrific on the offensive side, but he also was a factor for us defensively."
Conley is one of three returning defensive backs for Ferndale in a secondary teammate Richmond Baardson has nicknamed "The Sharks."
"We gave up a couple of big pass plays last Friday," Plenkovich said. "We have got some athletic guys who can run around back there, so we just have to play better."
But on the offensive side, Conley just needs to fine tune his play so that he can continue to improve.
"He had a great game running the ball, but I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you he doesn't have that kind of game with out the five guys blocking up front," Plenkovich said. "That was very encouraging, after we had to replace so many guys on our line."
Conley certainly has the natural skills to take advantage of whatever holes his line is able to open for him.
At 5-foot-8, 195-pound, Conley has a low center of gravity, but he's strong and has good balance.
"He's awfully hard to bring down one-on-one," Plenkovich said. "You'll see him break a lot of tackles. He has an ability to get to the second level and make guys miss. He's always moving forward and does a good job of not wasting a whole lot of time making moves. He has these quick, subtle moves that make guys miss. And even when he does make moves, he's always moving forward."
That skill set made Conley the Golden Eagles' leading rusher in 2011 with 790 yards and 14 touchdowns on 100 carries.
He also caught two passes - both of which went for touchdowns - for 87 yards.
"He's not just a good runner," Plenkovich said. "He can do all three phases we need him to do offensively. He's a good runner, but he's equally as good a blocker and a receiver."
But what Ferndale needs from him the most this year is his leadership.
"We need to be more intense than we were last year," Conley said after a preseason workout. "We're replacing so many players, and there a lot of guys in the mix. It's important that we bring everybody together and get everybody playing as hard as they can to help make this team better."
Plenkovich has been pleased with the example his senior has set doing just that.
"It started from Day 1," Plenkovich said. "He's one of our few returners. When you watch our practice, the thing you notice is how hard Alex and some of our other returners are working. Alex is a guy that really leads by example, and he's busting his butt every rep. That's contagious. The young guys see a two-way starter do that in practice, and that's a great example of how to get better and what tempo we want to run things at here. Alex does a great job of setting that tone for us."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.