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Placer’s first line of defense

Defensive front stands out with stellar play, diverse characters
By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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Brad Moller grew up on another continent, playing rugby and cricket. Michael Gray is a backup quarterback and Kenny Tackitt looks like a smallish defensive back. Placer High’s defensive line isn’t exactly conventional, but the group’s progress has led the Hillmen to the brink of a playoff berth. “Those kids have come a long way,” Placer coach Joey Montoya said. “From pad level to confidence, they’ve gotten better every week.” Placer’s defensive front will face its toughest test yet tonight as undefeated Whitney comes to town, led by star tailback Zack Graves. The leader of the pack is Moller, who speaks with an accent left over from his childhood in Capetown, South Africa. His family moved to Auburn when he was in eighth grade after his parents got jobs as pharmacists in town. At 6-1, 200 pounds, Moller is a terror at defensive end. He uses his rugby background to his advantage as well. “Especially playing defense, I feel the same free nature that I would in rugby,” Moller said. “Moving to Auburn was a dramatic change, it’s a very different place. But I love it here in the U.S.” Fellow senior Tackitt is Moller’s close friend. At 5-9, 175 pounds, Tackitt doesn’t look the part, but he causes all sorts of problems for opposing offenses as an interior lineman. “He’s just got a big heart,” Montoya said of Tackitt. “He’s fearless. He’s not afraid to go in there with anybody.” Gray is the backup to quarterback Matt Ross after starting behind center for the Hillmen junior varsity last season. Now that he’s on the other side of the ball for the first season in his high school career, he’s hooked. “I love defense,” Gray said. “I’m used to quarterback and you have to stay calm. On defense, it’s like all the fire’s got to come out. It’s a different mindset.” An excellent athlete, Gray uses his 6-3, 205-pound body to jump into passing lanes and disrupt opposing rushing games. He had a big pass deflection in the fourth quarter during Placer’s big win over Colfax last week. “The second half we came out and we were all pissed off and we knew we had to do something,” Gray said. Senior Mike Belanger brings great size to the defensive line and junior Conner McKenzie adds another element with his quickness and speed. Placer will look to slow down a Whitney attack that revolves around Graves. The senior has 27 rushing touchdowns this season and averages more than 9 yards per carry. He’s also thrown for five touchdowns. “He’s a great running back and he gets the ball 30 or 40 times a game,” Montoya said. “He’s great at finding holes in your defense. You have to play almost flawless to keep him from breaking a big run.” “We’re just going to try and do our thing, really just try to maintain the line of scrimmage,” Moller said of Placer’s strategy. The Hillmen can clinch a playoff berth with a victory. Should the CIF board of appeals overturn their two Pioneer Valley League forfeits, Placer could earn a share of the PVL title with a win. Placer has not been to the playoffs since 2000 and it’s been over a decade since the Hillmen won a league title. “It’s very motivating,” Moller said. “That’s been our whole theme this week.”