High school football preview: James Wood

WINCHESTER — With a 4-6 record last fall, the James Wood football team doubled its win total from the previous season.
Colonels coach Ryan Morgan says hitting that total again and moving forward will be another challenge this season.
“We need to make strides forward,” Morgan said. “Even to remain a 4-6 team, we would need to be better than we were last year. I think they realize that. I think there is some optimism they can do it because there is such a large group of seniors and they've stuck together for a long time.”
Morgan, whose squad went 2-4 in Class 4 Northwestern District action, said this fall will be tougher, especially with the addition of Culpeper County to the district chase. Culpeper (9-5) rebounded from a 1-3 start and made the Class 3 semifinals.
“They were a playoff team last year and we saw them on film a couple of times,” Morgan said of the Blue Devils. “I know that they are a good program.”
The other challenges are more familiar.
“Millbrook is bringing back some talent,” Morgan said. “They lost some talent, too. Sherando lost some talent, but Sherando has got some young guys coming up that have a lot of promise. … Sherando and Millbrook are always going to be tough and then with the addition of Culpeper it's another tough team added to the schedule.”
The good news for the Colonels is that they've got a roster full of experience. More than half (21 players) on the varsity roster are seniors.
“There are a lot of seniors,” Morgan said. “They've been through some battles for a couple of years. Several of them were up on varsity as sophomores. They've been around. We've had some good moments and some bad moments. I think that they are a pretty mature group and they can kind of keep things on an even keel a little bit — never getting too high or too low. It helps with the experience and they have another year of growth and size. Hopefully it pays off in the long run.”
Players feel the same way and see the potential to improve.
“Two years ago, we were kind of in a slump,” senior Jackson Turner said. “Last year, we picked it up more, but we could have had some more success. This year, I know we have a big season coming up.”
“We're pretty confident,” senior Hayden Cunningham echoed. “We have a pretty solid team. We have a lot of our backs returning. There's a lot of 10th-graders who are going to help us a lot.”
The Colonels certainly have plenty of experienced seniors in the offensive backfield. Fullback Turner (5-10, 210) and running backs Sam Adkins (6-0, 175) and William Crowder (5-10, 185) combined for nearly 1,900 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Crowder, fourth in Class A in the 100 meters, and Adkins provide the dash and Turner provides the bash in the running attack.
Junior Joey Vitola (5-8, 170) and sophomore Jaden Ashby (5-10, 155), who scored 22 touchdowns in junior varsity action, could also see action.
“They've been around and they've done it before,” Morgan said of his three senior backs. “This is the fourth year that William has been on varsity. This is the third year for Sam. This is the third year for Jackson. They've been around. They were a little unsure maybe as 10th-graders whether they could hack it at the varsity level.
“Now this is just a way of life for them — the expectation for them to go out and succeed. I don't think that they will question themselves and they are also good leaders. I think that rubs off on other people. They can talk to people like Joey or Jaden who are a little bit younger and give them some tips and pointers and keep them on an even-keel if they start to get too high or too low.”
Handing them the ball will be senior quarterback Carson Hoberg (5-10, 165). Hoberg (5 TD passes, 11 interceptions last season) has shown improvement.
“He's gotten a little bit stronger and kind of grown into his body a little bit more,” Morgan said. “He's put on a little bit of weight and muscle. The biggest thing with him is confidence and understanding of the offense. I've spent a good amount of time with him in the offseason looking at film and going through his reads and progressions. He asks questions when necessary. He's kind of a quiet guy in general, but he's starting to come out of his shell as far as leadership and talking to his teammates.”
The question mark on offense will be on the guys up front. Center Cunningham (6-0, 283), senior Seth DeHaven (6-3, 258) and senior Austin Schmitt (6-0, 212) have started games. Senior Kevin Brown (5-9, 200), who was a fullback last year, senior Bradley Sions (6-3, 200) and sophomore Ronan Solosky (5-11, 204) are also getting time up front as Morgan looks for the right combination.
“We're moving guys back and forth,” Morgan said.
Seniors Steadman Green (6-0, 175) and Jamys Solosky (5-10, 198) are seeing time at tight end.
Junior Jayson Herndon (6-5, 195), senior Luke Esparza (5-10, 165) and senior Jacob Owens (5-10, 165) will be the main targets for Hoberg.
Morgan has been impressed with Herndon's development.
“We had him up on varsity last year as a 10th-grader last year, but he wasn't targeted a whole lot,” Morgan said of Herndon. “He has really stepped up. He knows the offense real well. … He knows the routes and who to block. He's about 6-5 now and he's been doing a good job of catching the ball. He's somebody who has grown into his body. He's put on a couple of inches and has become a really strong blocker for us as well. I'm pleased with the way he attacked the offseason.”
Soccer standout Chris Garcia (Jr., 5-10, 150) will handle the placekicking and punting chores.
Defensively, the Colonels are excited to see where the season leads.
“It looks like we are going to be dogs this year — hungry to make a statement and show everybody we're not somebody to mess around with,” defensive back Crowder said.
“We're all crazy,” added Turner. “It's going to be nasty this year.”
Cunningham, DeHaven, Green, Schmitt, Brayden Patterson-Campbell (5-11, 275) Jonathan Addison (5-10, 217) are all seniors who will play on the defensive line.
Leading tackler Brown, Turner, Adkins and Vitola form an experienced linebacking corps. Sophomore Alex Barth (5-11, 180) also will see action.
“Our linebackers, again a lot of them are third-year varsity players,” Morgan said. “Kevin, Sam and Jackson are third-year players and Joey was on varsity as a sophomore and played a lot for us and he is probably our most technically sound offensive linebacker. He's not very big with but he's tough.”
Crowder, Esparza, basketball standout LaVaughn Freeman (Sr., 6-1, 160) and Owens lead the secondary. Freeman returns to football after a year away.
Morgan says the defense will also get a lift from a couple of seniors who have made big jumps in the offseason — defensive linemen Trevor Feathers and Drew Reese.
Feathers (5-11, 250) impressed Morgan with his dedication.
“He was at every workout that he could possibly get to,” Morgan said. “He did a really good job in the [first] scrimmage. He's somebody who has been playing since ninth grade and he has continued to improve. We've enjoyed watching that improvement and him having success.”
Reese has an interesting position indication on the roster — backup quarterback and nose guard.
“That's a rare combination where you have a quarterback and a nose tackle,” Morgan said. “He can throw and he's gotten stronger.”
Morgan believes the defense can help out the offense.
“I hope we can create turnovers,” he said. “That's one of the things we focus on and Coach Brian Thomas does a good job getting those kids excited to create turnovers and get some big returns. We've got good athletes. We're just trying to get them to react quickly rather than think too much.”
Morgan says the season boils down to a couple of key things.
“We have to stay healthy,” the third-year head coach said. “We have decent numbers, but we have a lot of guys we're counting on to play both ways and to get some time on special teams, too. We have to stay healthy.
“We have to make sure we don't make some of the mental mistakes we made last year. The coaching staff has done a good job of trying to make things simpler for kids this season. You always try to make things easier and help the kids play faster. I think the coaching staff has made good adjustments to practice and to our schemes. Hopefully we can avoid those mental things that took us out of games we should have been in a little closer position if not ahead.”
He certainly has a team of motivated seniors that will try to make that happen.
“I am crazy-pumped,” Turner said. “This is senior year so you have got to leave it all out there.”