Wood excited for Year 2 under Morgan

By WALT MOODY The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — James Wood coach Ryan Morgan has seen a ray of sunshine amidst the rainy days of preseason practice.
Coming off a disappointing 2-8 campaign in his first season at the helm, Morgan is encouraged by what he sees on the practice field.
“What I’m happy with so far is the offseason that we had,” Morgan said. “The kids were in here working hard, added weight and got stronger. I think that’s showing on the field from where we were last year.”
The players feel it, too.
“I think this year we’re a much more bonded team,” offensive/defensive lineman Luke Roy said. “We’re hanging out. We’re having fun. We’re getting done the things that we need to get done. We’re not slacking off. Everybody is putting in work and pushing each other to get better to make it past 2-8 and maybe to the postseason. Our goal is to get better every day.”
The Colonels are looking to end a playoff drought that has lasted since 2014. Their last season with a winning record came in 2010.
But Morgan remains optimistic, thanks to an experienced offensive line and backfield full of talented running backs. Four of those ball carriers are juniors — William Crowder (5-11, 181), Jackson Turner (5-9, 198), Sam Adkins (5-11, 166) and Luke Esparza (5-10, 154). Sophomore newcomer Joey Vitola (5-8, 162) is also in the mix.
They all bring a variety of skills to the table. Crowder (346 yards, 46 carries) is the leading returning rusher and possesses blazing speed, having finished eighth in the 100 meters at the Class 4 state meet.
Turner (71 carries, 271 yards) brings strength from the fullback spot, while Adkins (40 carries, 211 yards) and Esparza (15 carries, 75 yards) have shown pop.
“It’s a lot of fun to watch them run,” Morgan said. “They all have different things — some of them can run people over, some of them can outrun people, some of them can make people miss. It’s fun to be in practice and watch them play and run. I don’t think too many teams have that many guys who can run like we do. That’s a rare thing, truthfully, for us at James Wood. Hopefully we can find the right mix.”
Much of that mix will rely on the horses up front. Tackles Chance Grove (6-6, 245, Sr.) and Zach Herbert (6-5, 316, Sr.) return from last season. Walker See (6-2, 236, Sr.) started at guard and Luke Roy (6-1, 211, Sr.) moved into a starting role at that spot. Hayden Cunningham (6-0, 283, Jr.) is the new member of the unit at center. Seth DeHaven (6-1, 256, So.) also could see action.
“Offensive line, based on the guys that we have, should be a strength,” Morgan said. “That’s going to be important for them and just the mentality going out there every single play and being dominant, being nasty and playing through the whistle. They do have a year under their belts and we tried not to put too much on them and simplified some things for them so that they can play fast and identify who they are supposed to block. They’re looking crisper this year, so hopefully it carries over to the season.”
Carson Hoberg, who split time at quarterback last season, will call the signals, with Drew Reese (5-10, 198, Jr.) serving as the backup. Hoberg (5-10, 156, Jr.), a transfer from Oregon, got extended action last fall, completing 32 of 79 passes for 370 yards and two touchdowns with four interceptions.
Coming from a spread offense in Oregon, Hoberg had to adjust to the Colonels’ sets.
“He’s had an offseason to look at the film and a spring practice under his belt,” Morgan said. “I think the game has kind of slowed down for him a little bit.”
When Hoberg throws, he’ll be looking to find receivers Treyven Mandel (5-10, 162, Sr.), Tylor McBride (5-9, 145, Sr.), transfer Jacob Owens (5-10, 154, Jr.) and Jayson Herndon (6-4, 184, So.), along with tight ends Clayton Jones (6-3, 212, So.), Steadman Green (5-11, 160, Jr.) and Bradley Sions (6-3, 184, Jr.).
While there’s plenty of targets to throw to, the Colonels aren’t looking to throw the ball all around Kelican Stadium.
“Running has always been kind of our mainstay here at James Wood,” Morgan said. “We’ve had some good quarterbacks over the years. Carson throws a pretty good ball and he’s been improving in that area. But, we want to be a run-first team. We want to be able to throw the ball, but I think where our skills fit best is hopefully playing smashmouth football and driving the ball down the field.”
Chris Garcia (5-10, 145 So.), a soccer standout, Rodney Boward (6-1, 171, Sr.) and Esparza are in the mix for punting and placekicking spots. Crowder took three kickoffs back for touchdowns last year.
To start the season, many players are going to do double duty on defense.
Grove, Herbert, Cunningham and Roy will be on the defensive line along with Jamyz Solosky (5-9, 193, Jr.) and Green.
Turner, Austin Schmitt (6-0, 198, Jr.), Adkins, Vitola, Kevin Brown (5-10, 195, Jr.) and Brandon Dunn (6-0, 175, So.) are battling at linebacker.
Esparza, Owens, Crowder and McBride are in the secondary.
Turner (80), Roy (72), Esparza (50) and Brown (41) are the team’s returning leaders in tackles. Turner led the squad with three sacks.
The Colonels are looking to be more aggressive as they seek to improve on a season in which they gave up an average of 35.2 points per game.
“I think defense is a lot about flying to the football, just getting 11 guys chasing the football and making sure that we’re fresh, rotating in, that we’re lined up correctly and hustling to the football,” Morgan said. “You are going to make mistakes on defense, but if you are hustling to the football good things are going to happen.”
He hopes some of those good things are creating turnovers, something that didn’t happen as often he would have liked.
“Defensively, we didn’t do a great job of creating turnovers last year,” Morgan said. “We have some good players in the secondary and up front. We’ve got some people who can make it happen and some kids who are going to hustle and make plays from behind. Luke Roy does a really good job of hustling and just making plays you wouldn’t expect a defensive lineman to be able to make. Hopefully if we can stay fundamentally sound we can lure some teams into giving us the ball for a change.”
Morgan himself takes the blame for some of the Colonels’ problems giving the ball away, especially in the passing game. James Wood threw 11 interceptions last fall.
“I have to get better at playcalling,” Morgan said. “That was one of our issues with passing the ball — making sure that we’re getting the ball to the right place and to the right people. I have to get better at that. A lot of the turnovers are on me.”
Morgan said his biggest concern this fall is injuries. Already, several players were nicked up in practice before scrimmages began.
“Injuries are always a concern,” Morgan said. “You always want to get through August without getting hurt. We had some slippery days out on the practice field and some people kind of tweaked some things in their lower bodies. We’re try to get those guys healthy.”
Morgan lauds assistant coach Jordan Hartman for the work he’s doing with the players on their health and nutrition.
“We have to do our best to stay injury-free and healthy,” Morgan said. “We have to take care of our bodies.”
Morgan knows it will take a supreme effort in the Northwestern District. The Colonels open the season at home on Aug. 24 against Class 4 semifinalist Sherando. Millbrook, Liberty and Kettle Run also made the playoffs.
“This is the toughest the district has been since I’ve been here in the last 10 years or so, the number of teams who just have good athletes and are strong and powerful,” Morgan said. “It’s a tough schedule from beginning until the end. Those four teams that were good last year, I expect them to be good again. There were a couple of other [non-district] teams that were young last year who have returning talent, like Warren County and Hedgesville [W.Va.].”
Roy, who is also a standout wrestler, knows the getting through league play has rewards.
“If you make it past this district here, you know you’re going to do something special,” Roy said.
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