Grizzlies' opponents face ...

One excels as a sprinter and a wrestler. The other is a snowboarder.

What at first glance may appear to be an unlikely combination has quickly become the answer to one of the biggest questions facing the Ashland High football team this season: How to replace all four starting linebackers from a squad that won the Southern Sky Conference title a year ago.

Two games into the 2008 season, juniors Issa Shahin and Mack Gargus lead the undefeated and eighth-ranked Grizzlies in tackles.

"We really work well together," said Gargus, a junior who celebrated his first varsity start last week by making a game-high 11 tackles and two sacks in a win over Phoenix. "Issa's quick getting to the play. Then I'll come in with brute strength and clean it up."

"We're both really aggressive," Shahin added. "We both fly around to the ball. So when you have two of us out there, you get the job done twice as fast."

Shahin, who advanced to the Class 5A state track meet in the 100-meter dash last spring after excelling in wrestling during the winter, has taken on more of a leadership role this season. He is responsible for calling coverage schemes in the defensive huddle.

"Team sports really help you to learn friendships and how to work with other people and how to trust your buddy next to you," he said. "It's almost harder to play for a team. If you play individual (sports), if you mess up, it's just you. But if you play for a team, you mess up for the team."

Not that Shahin has much experience when it comes to messing up. The leading returner tackler from last season's team — and one of only four returning starters on defense — Shahin leads the Grizzlies with 17 1/2; tackles in the first two games. He recorded 10 1/2;, including a share of a sack, in the Grizzlies' 36-16 victory over Phoenix last week.

"Issa is an incredible athlete, a guy who, as a sophomore made all-conference on the defensive line at 5-9, 175 pounds," Ashland coach Charlie Hall said. "To have a kid like that, with that kind of speed, his intensity and tenacity, is just amazing. We're really fortunate to have a guy like that on our defense. It's just a matter now of where do we put him to give us an advantage?"

At times, Shahin will line up in a three-point stance along the line, shedding the blocks of larger, but slower, offensive linemen and penetrating the opponents' backfield. More often, however, one will find him at inside linebacker, where he can use his speed — he has run 11.4 in the 100 — to chase down opposing ball-carriers, rush the quarterback or drop into pass coverage.

"He's so quick off the ball that when they run inside, he's good at getting off blocks and making the play in small spaces," Hall said. "His best asset is his ability to pursue the ball from an inside-out perspective. If our perimeter people can do a good job of slowing the running back up, make him cut back, Issa is going to be there nine times out of 10."

Shahin's initial reluctance in moving from the down line position — where he earned All-Southern Sky Conference honors last fall — to linebacker in the team's 4-4 defensive alignment was tempered by the realization that his future likely hinged on the transition.

"I actually felt I was a little better off at d-line, because I would get a lot of bigger people who were a lot slower," he said. "But I don't think I would want to move back there, because I'm looking at colleges. I don't think they would want a 5-9, 175-pound lineman."

While Shahin entered summer practice as proven commodity, Gargus was somewhat untested, having played primarily on special teams as a sophomore.

"Mack didn't get hardly any work last year in a real game situation," Hall said. "So what he's doing right now is basically learning on the job."

And learning fast. Gargus entered the summer penciled in as a starter, but dropped behind Pat McCrea on the depth chart after spending part of the summer with his family in Europe. When McCrea suffered a back injury in the season-opener against Henley, Gargus got his chance. He responded with 2 1/2; tackles as Ashland overcame a 14-point deficit to win.

He then had his breakout game in the win over Phoenix, registering 11 tackles and a pair of sacks in his first varsity start.

"That was his first start and he certainly made a significant contribution," Hall said. "That's a position that we're not real deep at right now, so we are pleased he's been able to step up and make a lot of plays for us."

In spite of their impressive individual numbers, Shahin and Gargus know there is room for improvement. Ashland is allowing an average of 320 yards per game and has surrendered five touchdowns in a pair of wins over Class 4A opponents. The team figures to get a stiffer test Friday when it travels to Coos Bay to take on Marshfield.

"It's been pretty intense," Gargus said. "Linebacker is a lot of mental (work). You have to be a good leader. It suits Issa and I well."

And that could mean double trouble for Grizzlies' opponents this season.

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