High school football practice starts Monday, with players spending a few days conditioning before putting on pads and hitting. The regular season will open Aug. 27.
Justin Usiak was raised as a linebacker, eager for the opportunity to deliver crushing blows to anyone in his path.
That philosophy was appropriate for a defender, but not a quarterback whose team's success hinges on his health.
"There are times Justin approaches quarterback as if he was still a linebacker," coach Richie Alkire says. "He's too important to our offense, however, to be taking those hits."
Usiak was in and out of the lineup last fall, marring what was a remarkable start. The Sac-Joaquin Section's No. 2 passer after three games, he suffered a stinger in Week 4 and missed the next month.
He took on two defenders in the open field, eager for a few extra yards after escaping the pocket, and crumpled to the turf in the vicious collision.
"That was the linebacker in him, looking to bring a hit," Alkire says. "We need to manage that intensity because we need Justin to stay healthy."
Alkire's spread attack averaged 35 passes a game last season: It's a scheme that is often spectacular or disastrous, given the quality of the passer.
Usiak was a 53 percent passer (56 of 105) for 909 yards and eight TDs in his first three games, but completed only 43 percent for 567 yards and four scores the rest of the season.
He took far more hits after returning late in the season, contributing to his problems.
The offseason priorities for Usiak -- and his likely backups, junior McKay Marshall and sophomore Brad Wilkerson -- included making quick decisions while in the pocket.
There's no shame in choosing to fight another day, tossing it away to avoid the sack. Beyer will take second-and-10 if it will keep Usiak healthy.
The Patriots have averaged at least 23.3 points a game in Alkire's last four years as offensive coordinator, and this year he's also head coach. He shared that job with Doug Severe a year ago, but Severe is now the athletic director and will coach Beyer's freshmen.
"It's great for our freshmen because Doug's been running the varsity and will take that experience with him," Alkire notes. "Running the same program at the freshmen level allows us to teach kids more when they get to the varsity."
With the starting quarterback from last year's varsity, JV and freshman squads expected on varsity -- Marshall also is a cornerback, Wilkerson a receiver -- Beyer has a few "WildPat" sets that will put multiple QBs on the field.
Wilkerson remains a better runner than thrower, while Marshall thrilled fans a year ago with his arm and his feet while leading the JV squad.
"Because they're both good runners, we can use fly motion or line one up at running back," Alkire says. "We want to create scoring opportunities and then exploit them."
Beyer's base scheme uses a four-receiver set, two to each side, with Usiak taking snaps from the shotgun. A running back is often alongside Usiak, or he can be a fifth receiver.Reaching the end zone relies on receivers running precise patterns and Usiak being able to hit them in stride, allowing them to pick up more yards.
It happens only if the offensive line holds back the rush and if the receivers overcome the defense's tight coverage.
Those are big hurdles for a program that is often pushed around: Its offense lacks the strength to run the ball, while its defense often crumples after receiving a few hard hits.
Beyer gave up an average of 46 points a game last fall, after allowing 36 and 30 points in the two previous seasons.
"The book on Beyer is to hit us hard early and that we will not hit back," Alkire says. "It will be a challenge, shedding that reputation, but I believe we've got an answer for that."
That would be Billy McGill, a fire-breathing defensive coordinator whose physical approach is unlike anything the Patriots have seen. Linebacker Jake Dowd and end Ian Mitten return to anchor the unit, but McGill will demand more from those two this season.
Junior Zach Jenkins will be one of McGill's projects after the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder was rated No. 2 out of 300 linemen at a University of the Pacific camp, according to Alkire.
McGill had been at Modesto coaching his son, Bubba, but the younger McGill is now in college. With McGill's daughter a cheerleader at Beyer, it seemed like a natural move.
"Billy has an aggressive nature that comes across well to kids," Alkire says. "We know the defense needs to be tougher. Billy's a big part of that, as well as our early schedule."
Beyer opens Aug. 27 against Hilmar in the Modesto Kickoff Classic at Downey -- the Knights face Turlock to cap the doubleheader -- and then will play Atwater and Napa.
"We've got some teams that run a spread, and others that love to hit hard," Alkire says. "We'll get hit hard early, then we'll see how we react to it."