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Hey, Johnny: Coyotes Debut Mondoball

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PALM DESERT — When quarterback Nate Lewis dusted off his career in 2012, grabbed the Coyotes’ Run ‘n’ Shoot offense by the horns, and rocketed to AAA fame, head coach J. David Miller knew in his heart that promoting his quarterback to pro scouts would lead to the inevitable. It was only a matter of time before they, too, would discover that Lewis is, indeed, that good, and the Coyotes would face the day when someone else would have to run the nation’s number-one offense.

That day came Thursday when Lewis was invited back by the Arena Football League’s San Jose Sabercats to compete with the three-time World Champions.  Fans wondered aloud all week on social media what the next chapter in the Coyote Run ‘n’ Shoot playbook might be. Unbeknownst to them, they already had a plan, one that should look strangely familiar to fans of Texas A&M’s version of the offense.

What do you do when you lose a legend?

Miller was asked this a month ago, when it became reality that Lewis was coveted by other pro teams.

“Start building another one,” said the coach.

******

THE YEAR WAS 2010, and the early scouting reports on Mondo Delgado Jr. out of Denver, Colorado, looked a lot like those coming out of Tyler, Texas, about Johnny Manziel, now of  ‘Johnny Football’ fame.

Raw, natural talent. Dual threat. Ability to extend plays. Deceptive, blinding, 4.19 speed. Needs consistent PT. Needs coaching and a good system.

Slightly older, only an inch shorter and a few pounds lighter than Johnny Football, Delgado had grown up playing a variety of sports, including basketball, baseball, swimming, track and, of course, football. As early as his freshman year at Bear Creek High, most coaches who briefly saw his skills — supersonic speed, intelligence, fearlessness — agreed that, like Texas A&M’s Manziel, Mondo had the “it” factor.

Except for one, and unfortunately, he counted most: The head coach at Lakewood High School, who deemed  him too small, ordered him to the weight room three times a day, relegated him to the bench, and ignored his gifts — except on special teams.

So, desperate to be discovered, Delgado did the only thing  he could: He answered by turning special teams into Mondoball —  weaving, bobbing, spinning, dancing — and “flat hauling ass,” says one coach en route to a school-record 12 TD punt returns and nine TD kickoff returns.

His teammates voted him a captain, and the table was set for Delgado to have a breakout senior year that would catapult him to Division I greatness. Then, in the team’s final pre-game scrimmage with only 1:13 on the clock, Mondo hit the gas in the open field — and the ACL in his left knee exploded. Nine months of major rehabilitation later, Delgado’s D-1 dreams had disappeared like a vanquished mountain climber in a blinding Denver snowstorm. Heartbroken, he took a city job in parks and recreation.

Heard you used to be a football player,” said a co-worker, a man in his early 60s. “You too little to play ball, son. You best think about a real job.”

The words stung. Delgado tested the knee in a 50-team flag football league, and it worked good enough to score 28 touchdowns. Gingerly, he took the next step, and walked on with the AAA Mile High Grizzlies. He made the team as a backup, until the starting kick returner went down with injury in mid-game.

Enter Delgado. He took his first AAA kickoff and rocketed 75 yards for a touchdown, then snagged his first punt and went 87 yards for six.

That night on Facebook, Mondo sent a message for his old friend at Parks and Rec.

That was for you.

Thirty-five touchdowns later, Delgado was the league MVP, with a 6.5-yard rushing average for 1,123 yards in nine games. That earned him a spot as a member of the West in a national All-Star game, where he would be coached by SoCal’s Miller, start at slot in his first introduction to the Run ‘n’ Shoot, and back up another quarterback named Nate Lewis, the National Player of the Year.

Just before Thanksgiving, Delgado paid his dues to the desert and joined All-Americans Lewis, Rashad Roberts, Josh Asuncion, Demario Brown and David “The Diesel” Cathcart in the Coyote backfield.  With multiple Arena teams asking the Coyotes for film of Lewis, the coaching staff began grooming Delgado for the possibility that his future might be brighter than most 21-year-old rookies:

As the triggerman in the Run ‘n’ Shoot, AAA football’s number-one and highest-scoring offense.

******

AS THEY DID WITH LEWIS a year ago, Coyote coaches prepared Delgado with original Mouse Davis notes and their Run ‘n’ Shoot playbook. On a greaseboard, they patiently explained the drops, routes, reads, progressions and coverages. This included phone calls to other players and coaches who had achieved great success in the offense to give Delgado a sounding board and make him more secure.

Second, Mondo was introduced to film, film and more film. He spent entire days with assistant head coach Wayne Anderson Jr., studying the playbook, watching film of Jim Kelly and the Houston Gamblers, and building a relationship of trust between himself and the coaching staff.  He was given more film of the Houston Oilers, Detroit Lions and the University of Hawaii and Colt Brennan, and Anderson insisted he draw each play and route individually until he knew them.

Third, they made him throw against air, as many as 300 repetitions in practice, carefully correcting footwork, hips, eyes, shoulders, and throwing motion. Fourth, he was eased into seven-on-seven drills. Fifth, live scrimmages, where the coaches continue to slowly build in the complexity of multiple looks, blitzes and formations.

The only thing that remained was for Delgado to “be the man” against a real opponent, in a hostile environment.

That would have to wait. For the first five games of the season, Nate Lewis — as if to prove last season was no fluke — rained down hell on Coyote opponents, throwing for 1,763 yards and 23 touchdowns, before being whisked away to San Jose.

******

MEANWHILE, DELGADO gave Coyote fans a diverse taste of the fascinating, if not yet dominating, world of Mondoball, as he spent the first half of the season earning the respect of teammates on a veteran roster already packed with stars.

— In the Catalina Kickoff Classic, he had three catches, 56 yards, and a touchdown, a 42-yard punt return, a pair of two-point conversions, and a 16-yard run from quarterback for another score.

— In the Black & White Coyote Classic,  Delgado scored a pair of two-point conversions, ran under a breathtaking rainbow from Lewis for an 86-yard touchdown, returned a kickoff 42 yards, and scored on another 18-yard choice seam route.

— Against the Vegas Rush, he slashed for 12 yards on the ground, spun for a two-point conversion, caught a 66-yard pass and returned a punt for 67 yards.

— Versus the Trojans, Delgado took a punt return and ignited through the middle of the field for an apparent touchdown, only to slip and stumble after a 46-yard gain. He also caught a 17-yard pass. Against the Silvercats, he returned a punt for 62 yards, and caught two passes for 36 yards.

SWITCHING FROM SLOT TO QUARTERBACK, Delgado had to change jersey numbers, and now wears the coveted number 12 made famous by Run ‘n’ Shoot and Hall of Fame legend Jim Kelly himself.  He gave up number 84, the one worn by his father, Mondo Sr., his mentor who raised him as a single dad and still owns most of the receiving records at Denver’s West High School.

“My father always taught me that when you get an opportunity, you better take it, because it might not come again,” Delgado says. “This is my opportunity. I’ve waited my whole life for this.”

Without question, he has big shoes to fill. Lewis, in his final week as a Coyote, engineered a 42-0 whitewash of the Las Vegas Silvercats,  hung six touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3 on the board, while completing 78.4 percent of his throws.

“There is no question, I’m not Nate Lewis,” Delgado says. “But he’s not me, either. We’re two different styles, two different players. But the system doesn’t change. We trust the system here. We’re going to be reckless, have fun, and score points.”

Pointing to Johnny Manziel, Coach Miller doesn’t mince words at what he believes Delgado can achieve.

“He wants to be great,” Miller says. “But just like Nate a year ago, he has to play.  There’s going to be a learning curve, but we’re going to take the reigns off of him, let him go, see what he’s got. We made him study a lot of Manziel and Texas A&M, and he said he feels like he’s looking in the mirror. He’s so young, he’s so gifted, and we’ve put a lot of talent around him. But there is no way to simulate game speed or game situations.

“There are only two kinds of quarterbacks in the world,” the coach added. “One gets better when his opportunity arrives, the other gets worse. Mondo has the ball. We know he has the potential. We hope he surpasses all our expectations.”

This Saturday against the Las Vegas Cobras, the Coyotes will take the field for the first time in their young history without Nate Lewis at the helm.

“Coach Miller has given me the green light to do all the things I do well,” Delgado says. “We’re going to ball out.”

 

 

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