High school football preview: James Wood

WINCHESTER — When asked what he felt were the team’s strengths on the first day of football practice on Aug. 2, James Wood senior Jaden Ashby didn’t feel there was a need to specify.
“I feel like we don’t have any weaknesses,” said Ashby, whose team opens its season at 7 p.m. on Friday at Sherando. “I feel like in all aspects, we’re all on the same page. I think every part of the team is equally good.”
With more than half of its starters back from a spring team that went 2-0 and posted its first Frederick County sweep since 2008, there is a lot to like about the Colonels and their 41-player roster this fall.
In Ashby (6 feet, 183 pounds), James Wood might have the area’s most dangerous offensive player. As a sophomore, Ashby had 48 catches for 777 yards and 10 touchdowns, all single-season school records.
After adding 35 pounds in the 16 months between seasons, Ashby showed last spring he can also be a dangerous runner. Taking direct snaps in a Wildcat formation, Ashby had nine carries for 182 yards and three TDs in addition to two catches for 47 yards in a 36-20 win over Sherando, the Colonels’ first triumph over the Warriors since 2008.
The following week, Ashby showed he can throw a little, as well — his 66-yard TD pass off a direct snap to open the second half sparked a James Wood team that trailed 28-14 at the half against Millbrook to a 55-42 win, the Colonels’ first over the Pioneers since 2014. Ashby also had five carries for 70 yards and a TD and a 21-yard catch.
Ashby will likely take some direct snaps again this year, but James Wood also wants to get the ball in his hands downfield. The Colonels are turning to junior Jared Neal (6-0, 166) at quarterback to deliver him the ball.
Neal didn’t get a chance to play football in the spring as a result of an injury suffered playing basketball. Neal is the son of the Frederick County Middle School coach, who is also named Jared. Neal Sr. played football at Shenandoah University.
“He’s done a good job and really knows the offense,” James Wood fifth-year head coach Ryan Morgan said. “He’s kind of the standard coach’s kid, just kind of the smartest kid on the field.”
Ashby will play as a slot receiver along with senior Ryan King (four catches, 66 yards). James Wood’s outside receivers are junior Eli Miller (5-8, 160) and junior Andrew Link (6-2, 190), who is coming off a spectacular track season. Link earned Class 4 All-State honors by placing sixth in both the 110-meter hurdles (top time of 15.84 seconds) and 300 hurdles (40.95).
James Wood lost starting running back Joey Vitola to graduation. The Colonels will look to senior Wes Brondos (5-8, 180) and sophomore Zach Smith (5-9, 185) to do the work there.
“Wes is really shifty,” Morgan said. “He’s a tough kid. The first play in the scrimmage against Rock Ridge, he got a fake and went through the line, and just kind of leveled the linebacker. He packs a punch. Zach Smith is one of the stronger kids on our team. He came in ninth grade last year and he was already benching 225 pounds.
“Wes has the ability to hit the home run a little bit more, and Zach is more of the grinder and the pounder. They’re both smart and really good kids. We trust them both.”
A veteran offensive line will feature senior Ronan Solosky (6-2, 220) at center; sophomore Jack Thompson (5-10, 255) and junior Ethan Pingley (5-10, 234) at the guards; and seniors Logan McKee (6-1, 211) and Hunter Franks (6-5, 250) at the tackle positions.
“We only had two games, but most of [the linemen] gained quite a bit of experience in the spring,” Morgan said. “Ronan’s a third-year varsity player. Hunter has been our best leader and most consistent lineman up front. He’s been really good for us. He didn’t play his sophomore year because of an injury, so he was a nice surprise for us in the spring.”
When James Wood needs a tight end, the Colonels will turn to senior Blake Hounshell (5-11, 225).
Morgan said he’s looking forward to seeing what his squad will do under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Joey Yurish, the head coach at Hedgesville (W.Va.) from 2016-19. Yurish led the Eagles to playoff berths in each of his first three seasons, with the 2017 team posting the program’s first winning season in 20 years. The 2017 and 2018 teams both averaged more than 32 points per game.
Morgan said James Wood will rotate several players on the defensive line. The starters will be Franks and Solosky at the tackle spots and seniors Caleb Keefer (eight tackles. 2.5 for loss) and Brendan Cassidy (three tackles) on the ends.
“Having four good seniors, and a couple of guys we can bring off the bench, I think the defensive line has a chance to stay fresh and make some big plays for us,” Morgan said.
Hounshell (10 tackles, two for loss, and two interceptions) — James Wood’s defensive MVP in the spring — and Link will be James Wood’s inside linebackers. Brondos and sophomores Lane Overbaugh (5-9, 164) and Casey Floyd (6-2, 179) will be in the mix at outside linebacker.
“Blake is a really good leader,” Morgan said. “He’s a really smart kid. He does everything right. He works really hard. He shows up at everything. He does all the fundamentals well. He’s almost like a mini-coach on the field. He’s been taking some of the younger guys under his wing.
“And he’s a heavy hitter, a solid tackler, and he shows up in the right places. He fills well on the run. He got a couple of picks last year because he usually positions himself pretty well in pass coverage.”
In the secondary, Ashby (11 tackles) and junior Chris Morrison (6-3, 188) are the cornerbacks. King — who led James Wood in tackles with 20 last year and also had two interceptions — will play safety, but James Wood can also move him over to cornerback.
Junior Hunter Barnhart, who handled kickoffs for the Colonels in the spring, will also take over placekicking and punting duties this year.
“He’s got a big leg and is working really hard,” Morgan said.
Ashby had two punt returns for 25 yards (12.5 average) last year. As a sophomore, he averaged 18.1 yards on 12 punt returns and 22.4 yards on eight kickoff returns.
While James Wood hopes last spring is a sign that it’s ready to be a bigger contender in the Class 4 Northwestern District, the Colonels are mostly excited about the chance to play a complete schedule. James Wood didn’t get to play nearly as much football as the rest of the district last year. Millbrook and Sherando played four games each, and each district team that competed in the Virginia High School League season played at least six games.
James Wood’s schedule will look much different compared to the past. The Colonels will play Brentsville for the first time since 2010 on Sept. 17 in James Wood’s Hall of Fame game; play North Hagerstown (Md.) for the first time in school history in the Colonels’ Homecoming game on Oct. 1; and will play Jefferson (W.Va.) for the first time since 1979 with a trip to Shenandoah Junction on Oct. 8.
“I don’t want to put any goals out for us,” King said. ‘I’ll just say I want us to do well and just enjoy our time out here. Obviously, I want to win games, but the main thing is that we enjoy ourselves.”
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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