When Lee Blankenship and his staff took over at Mustang following the 2019 season, they knew establishing their brand and culture would not be an overnight job.
Standards, not goals.
Every team sets forth a list of achievements it wants to accomplish each season and state championship is usually at the top.
But for Blankenship and the Broncos, it’s about the process. It started in Dec. 2019 and is now clockwork for the team’s senior class – a group that won’t accept anything less than consistency.
“This is the first group of seniors we’ve had here that really the way we do things is all they know,” Blankenship said. “They were freshmen when we got here, and they’ve never shown any resistance to what we’ve tried to establish. They just come in and work their tails off and they do it each and every day.
“We really feel it’s because they don’t know any better.”
The Broncos travel to Moore tonight to kick off the 2022 season against the Southmoore Sabercats, coming off what Blankenship calls the best offseason the team and program has had in his now fourth season.
“We worked these guys pretty hard in the offseason and in the spring,” he said. “Then again in the summer. And they’ve bought into that. The energy level has been high, but the main thing is that it has been consistent. We want to be loud and enthusiastic, but at the same time we want to always bring that energy.
“That’s the standard we’ve wanted to establish here and this class and team has gotten a lot closer to accomplishing that.”
Offensively, the Broncos return plenty of firepower, starting at receiver with Oklahoma-commit Jacobe Johnson and Air Force-commit Keegan Bass.
The duo accounted for 21 receiving touchdowns in 2022 as well as two rushing scores. Johnson totaled a team-high 41 receptions for 1,091 yards with 12 touchdowns while Bass caught 37 passes for 672 yards and nine scores.
Senior Evan Rader and junior L.B. Hayes will also be counted on as primary targets along with a handful of others battling for playing time according to Blankenship, who says depth at the position will be key. Senior Roman Rowland, who takes over at ‘Bronco back’, will also play a role in the team’s passing attack.
“We feel really good at receiver,” he said. “We know Jacobe and Keegan are going to get a lot of attention and open opportunities for other guys to win us big games. When you have that many kids battling for three spots, it’s a fierce competition and one that makes the entire team better.”
Senior quarterback Tristen Russell returns for his third season as a starter, coming off a stellar 2021 campaign where he threw for over 2,600 yards, 29 touchdowns, and six interceptions. He is one of the top signal callers in the state.
“Tristen has been great for us,” Blankenship said. “He was extremely efficient for us last year and has one of the strongest arms I’ve ever coached. He reminds you of Baker Mayfield in the way he plays with a chip on his shoulder and the arm strength. And he plays with that enthusiasm.
“He’s the unquestioned leader of the offense and everybody knows we can beat anybody with him out there.”
The Broncos have plenty of depth at running back. Blankenship says as many as four players could be in the rotation this fall.
Senior Jay Bedford led the team in rushing last year with 824 yards and 15 touchdowns, but seniors Pryce Burges and Antone Prince will also see plenty of carries. Junior Bryance Sanders should also see time in the backfield.
“All four guys could start for us and I guess they all kind of do,” Blankenship said. The team awards starting carries based off graded practice reps throughout each week. “Iron sharpens irons with that group. All of them feel like they should be the first guy out there, which makes things competitive. …They all bring something different.”
The Broncos will look to senior guard Rylan Lerma to captain the offensive line.
After graduating four seniors up front last season, Lerma is now the only returner with starting experience. Blankenship has been impressed with Lerma’s leadership and progression this offseason and says the unit will lean on the senior’s veteran presence.
Seniors Shamus Leeper and Rett Schneider are expected to bookend the line at left and right tackle with Lerma and junior Austin Reed at the guard spots. Senior Conley Matthews will handle the center position while senior Chad Beard is likely to split time at ‘Bronco back’, shifting around at multiple spots as a blocker and possible pass-catcher.
The Mustang coach believes in the group’s talent and see its chemistry developing throughout the year.
“It’s not like we’re young up front, we just don’t have a lot of starting experience,” Blankenship said. “It’s hard to start for the Broncos, but these guys have earned those spots and we’re really excited with how much they can grow. …Every day they’ve gotten a little bit better.
“We have the leadership with Rylan and the strength and size. We really like what we’ve seen. A lot of our success this season is going to be based on how much that unit continues to improve.”
Seniors Kaden Jones and Keegan Bass are set to lead the Mustang Broncos back to the Class 6A-1 playoffs in 2022. (Photo by Shelly Holinsworth / Freelance Action Photography)
Defensively, Blankenship says the program believes in having “arrows in the quiver.”
Two of those arrows line up along the team’s defensive line, including seniors Kaden Jones and Elijah Garcia. The duo combined for 77 tackles and three sacks last season. Jones currently holds scholarship offers from Central Michigan, Air Force, Wyoming, and Kansas. Garcia is the strongest player in the program according to Blankenship.
“Kaden is coming into the season with a lot of momentum,” Blankenship said. “Elijah is another guy we are really excited about. Both are strong and possess great speed and toughness. They are going to be a real threat to opposing offensive lines.”
Junior Russell Zollicofer and sophomore Louie Jones will also anchor the team’s defensive line while seniors Jaxon Bobbitt and Hudson Conrad, as well as junior Caston Meadows, will lead the way at linebacker. Conrad topped the 80-tackle mark in 2021 with 82.
“They are extremely tough and strong players,” Blankenship said of the team’s linebacker group. “Bobbitt has a 300-pound power clean. Conrad cleans 295 pounds and brings a great deal of experience and leadership to the entire defense.”
Mustang’s secondary, like the receiving corps, is loaded with firepower and talent.
Johnson anchors the secondary as one of the top defensive backs in the country, finishing the 2021 season with 35 tackles and one interception. Junior safety Zach Warren, one of the top playmakers in Oklahoma, returns as well after totaling 90 tackles and one pick in 2021.
Not to mention Trevor Price, a three-year starter at strong safety who collected 104 tackles with an interception and a forced fumble last year. Junior Qualon Perry and sophomore Waleed Gaines Jr. will likely share cornerback duties opposite Johnson.
“We bring a lot of experience back this year,” Blankenship said. “Jacobe is one of the best in the country and Zach is an absolute headhunter in the middle of the field. Trevor is a three-year starter for us and brings and ton of leadership. We are really excited to see how this group’s potential plays out over the season.”
Sophomore Aiden Jordan will be tasked with kicking duties this season. Blankenship says Jordan has a “monster” leg and will be an important asset throughout the year. The special teams will also feature Johnson and Bass as returners – if they get the chance.
Seniors Rylan Lerma and Kaden Jones line up against each other for a photo shoot during Mustang’s media day in August. Lerma and Jones are expected to anchor the team’s offensive and defensive lines. (Photo by Shelly Holinsworth / Action Freelance Photography)
“We have two D-1 players that our opponents are more than welcome to kick to if they feel like it,” Blankenship said. “I wouldn’t recommend it but won’t be upset if they do.”
Physical-Fast, or ‘Phast’, is now the Mustang way. Strength, speed, hard work, and consistency. As long as the Broncos bring it each day, Blankenship says Friday nights will take care of itself.
“We’re already seeing the fruits of our labor,” Blankenship said. “These kids have bought in and have grown so much and worked so hard over the last three seasons. Now it’s ingrained in them. They won’t accept anything less.
“It’s that everyday standard.”