Wide open spaces

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By Brian Forbes

Austin Rodriguez was always judged by his feet until the day someone finally noticed his hands.

Always a running back, Rodriguez’s ability to catch the ball caught a coach’s attention one week before his first freshman game at Dakota Ridge.

“It was probably the best move I’ve ever made,” Rodriguez said.

It’s certainly hard to argue against a year after Rodriguez was a Class 4A first team all-state selection at wide receiver by The Denver Post.

Rodriguez is one of 13 returning starters for the Eagles this season and an integral part of a senior class that has enjoyed gridiron success at nearly every step. Varsity football is the final rung to climb, unless you count a first-round playoff exit last season to eventual state champions Pueblo West.

The Eagles certainly aren’t.

“We always talk about that in the weight room and at practice, about how close we were last year,” Rodriguez said of that 12-10 defeat in Pueblo. “We only had a few losses (to graduation) and with a good team coming back we talk about how we have a good chance of something special.”

The Eagles are ranked No. 2 in both metro daily papers and one cable show. They have an experienced running back in Andrew Melton, a solid defense and another strong receiving target in 6-foot-2 senior Brian Vander Velde. The question mark, however, will hang at quarterback, where Cameron Pritchett replaces three-year starter Eric Cain.

Pritchett, who is also a baseball player with plenty of arm, was a standout last season on defense. Developing strong chemistry with Rodriguez and Vander Velde will be key to coach Ron Woitalewicz’s pro-style offense, which is at its best when opposing defenses are on their toes.

Rodriguez is the ever-present home run threat. At 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, he has the footwork to change speed and directions on a dime. Summer workouts have seen substantial gains in his bench press and squats, which has already shown improvements in his ability to fight for hand control and get separation against defenders.

His speed, however, is probably his greatest weapon. He can get behind most defensive backs and once he’s in the open field – look out.

One of his strengths is his ability to run full stride and track the football.

Rodriguez will also return kickoffs this season, in addition to fielding punts. He ran one punt back last season for a touchdown in Dakota Ridge’s shootout loss to 5A’s Overland, a team known for having a depth of speed. Rodriguez, however, was one of the few Eagles players that looked right at home amongst the speedsters.

“I’m just playing in the game and forget about who I’m playing against and think they’re no better than me,” Rodriguez said.

The Eagles get one break before they play a game. The rugged Mountain Plains League is gone and Dakota Ridge joins the West Metro League.

The league includes Jeffco rivals (Wheat Ridge, Golden and Green Mountain), preseason No. 1 Heritage (quarterfinalists in Class 5A last season) and the remnants of the Denver Prep League (West, North, South, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln).