Everyone knew the offense was going to be solid like every year, but with only four starters returning to the other side of the ball, the defense was painfully young and inexperienced.
How far the team got during the fall campaign would come down to that defense, and clearly with the way the season has played out, that defense is rolling.
"I don't think there's any question that if our defense had not stepped up in games this season, we would have possibly struggled. They're the reason where we're at right now," Reed football coach Ernie Howren said.
Something clicked for the defense. A week after giving up 54 points to Carson, Reed started what has turned into a nine-game win streak by holding defending state champion McQueen to a pair of touchdowns.
"Carson out-schemed us and we didn't get done what we needed to. It wasn't so much of what they did. It was more of what we took ourselves out of," senior defensive back Brandon Mondragon said. "It was a wake-up call that we weren't as good as we thought we were and people weren't just going to roll over for us."
Each week, the defense kept improving, to the point where the Raiders held an athletic Hug team to only three points - two weeks after the Hawks lit up a strong Spanish Springs defense for 36 points.
In the Blue and Gold's 10 wins, opponents are only averaging a meager 12 points a game. But that's only part of the story of the defense. When the offense struggles, the defense can put up points on the scoreboard as well with the most impressive performance coming against Spanish Springs. Two interceptions returned for touchdowns propelled the Raiders to a 19-6 victory and clinched the High Desert League regular season title.
Mondragon had one of those pick-sixes, and has been one of the big reasons for the turnaround in the defense.
"We only have three guys who are two-way starters for us and he's one of them. He means so much to us on so many levels on offense and defense," Howren said. "Offensively he can run the ball or run a great route and make huge plays for us in the passing game. Defensively, you have a senior leader like Brandon, making so many big plays for us and making sure that guys are in the right position on the field. That's something Brandon has done for us all season long."
Howren said Mondragon is what you want out of a safety who excels in coverage as well as stopping the run in the trenches.
The senior is tied for the team lead with 71 tackles and has a team-high four interceptions.
But that's just half his story. Mondragon is also a prominent part of the offense in the running and passing games. Of his eight total touchdowns, he has scored on the ground three times, through the air four times and once on defense. He is the third leading rusher with 145 yards on 37 carries. His 17 receptions are also third best.
"It's fun contributing to both sides, and it's a great chance to open up the game," Mondragon said. "I like hitting people, so I'm more of a defensive player."
The defense will have to come up big against Galena in this week's regional championship game. The third seed from the Sierra League has turned itself into a surprise contender by upsetting No. 2 HDL Spanish Springs and No. 1 SL Carson in consecutive weeks. The Grizzlies are scoring 33 points a game. The winner gets to hang a banner and earn a trip to the state tournament.
"We're glad to be where we are, so we have to worry about what we need to do," Mondragon said. "It's great how long it (the season) is lasting. This is the first time we've made it past the second round in four years. It would be great going out on top."