Indian Rocks Christian's start to the season was a little rocky.
In the preseason game against Fort Lauderdale Westminster Academy, the Golden Eagles were outmanned. The Lions, sporting several Division I athletes, ran over IRC 38-0.
In last week's season opener against Class 3A St. Petersburg Catholic, the Eagles were undermanned. Running backs Zeke McGaughy and Theo Anderson, who gained almost 2,000 yards combined as freshmen, were suspended for disciplinary reasons. IRC's rushing attack was crippled in a 28-13 loss.
Tonight against Class 2A-5 rival Carrollwood Day, the manpower seems just right. McGaughy and Anderson are back. Damian King will not have to carry the load. And sophomore quarterback Garrett Ross-Johnson has two games under his belt as a starter.
"We have to put those games behind us," Ross-Johnson said. "Our running game will be fine and I thought I did pretty well in the passing game. Losing to them last year made me kind of mad. I'm ready to get back at them."
Ross-Johnson was a freshman safety in 2012. Carrollwood Day, behind 159 yards from running back Robert Davis (now at Memphis), squeezed out a 28-22 win that essentially clinched the district championship.
Also in IRC's favor is the return of McGaughy and Anderson. At full strength, IRC — which made the playoffs last season as district runnerup — has a chance to take the early lead in the district race.
"We've got to look at this as our district championship," coach Mark Buchanan said. "And then the next district game is another district championship."
The X factor for the Golden Eagles is Ross-Johnson. The left-hander takes over for Matt Kulaga, who threw for 1,201 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. In the opener against the Barons, Ross-Johnson completed 13 of 20 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.
"He's been phenomenal," Buchanan said. "He's put the ball where we need him to. He's young, but I couldn't be more pleased with how he has performed so far."
Ross-Johnson was the backup quarterback last season but played exclusively on defense. He spent the spring and summer working with his offensive teammates and feels comfortable.
"I was a quarterback for three years before last year, and I've worked with all of my teammates," he said. "There hasn't been any problem making the transition."
It also helps that a big target has emerged in tight end Ryan Ferguson. The senior caught nine passes for 170 yards last season but has a chance to more than double that this season.
"He's been tutored by (former IRC and current Missouri tight end) Sean Culkin the last two years," Buchanan said. "He's a basketball player who has taken over the tight end position. He's doing a very good job. I expect him to get some college looks."
With all systems go, IRC will find out if full strength is enough to overcome Carrollwood Day (0-1).
"I like the position we are in right now," Buchanan said. "It will tell us what we need to get done for the rest of the season."
Rodney Page can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @RodneyHomeTeam.