Football Preview 2017: Central returns experienced core in quest for district title defense

Central High School football coach Mke Yew waits for players to start a drill during opening day practice. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Central High School’s football team returns a healthy portion of varsity experience from a squad that won the Bull Run District championship and reached the second round of the VHSL Group 2A playoffs in 2016.

Head coach Mike Yew said earlier this month that he expects to have a “pretty decent team” again in 2017, but he’s making sure the Falcons know past success isn’t guaranteed to carry over.

“On paper it looks like we have it all ready to roll,” Yew said, “and I think that might be our one hiccup this preseason is that we’ve practiced a handful of times like we think we’re already there and we’re certainly not, and that’s the message we keep sending to our kids. When you win the league like we did last year and you make the playoffs and you win a game or two, you’re on everybody’s bull’s eye. Everybody wants to beat Central.”

The Falcons certainly appear like a team built to make another run at a district crown this fall. Though Yew said Central lost a core group of “program guys” to graduation – seniors combined to net eight of Falcons’ 11 All-Bull Run District selections last season – the team returns nine players who have started on offense for the Falcons over the last two seasons and around seven on defense.

Zeb Dyer, a junior, returns as the quarterback for a Falcon offense that put up 33.2 points and 349.1 yards per game in 2016, two of the best marks among local teams. Dyer threw for 1,048 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions last season and should have a couple of targets with big-play potential to pick from this fall.

Junior speedster Kyle Clanton (28 receptions, 523 yards, six touchdowns in 2016) earned all-state honors as a kick returner, punt returner and receiver last season, and senior Varsey Bright is back at Central after playing last season at Moorefield (West Virginia).

The Falcons do have to replace graduated running back Carston Shockey – who neared 1,400 yards rushing and scored 21 touchdowns last season – and Yew said Central is turning the tandem of juniors Shane Watson (66 carries, 403 yards in 2016) and Hunter Mullins.

Central boasts a veteran front that returns starting linemen Declan Franklin, Connor Funk (6-foot-2, 350 pounds), Grayson Manning and Ezra Smith (6-4, 268 pounds), though the Falcons did lose all-state lineman Alex Sibert to graduation.

Bryan Davis, who did not play football last season, will play tight end after starting in that position two years ago, and Yew added that Andrew Miller, last season’s starting tight end, could see time at guard, tackle, tight end and fullback.

Despite the question marks in the backfield, Yew said not to expect much variation from the physical run game that has been a staple of Central’s offense.

“The thing about it is there’s only so many things you can add in the I backfield, so that’s the biggest thing,” said Yew, whose team averaged 235.6 rush yards per game in 2016. “Basically it’s a power running game. It’s line up and challenge the guy in front of you and run the ball. That’s what we’ve hung our hat on for all 11 years that I’ve been here.”

Defensively, Franklin and Watson bring experience up front to a line that lost Sibert and Dominic Richel, two all-district picks a year ago.

Junior Zach Abrams, the Falcons’ leading tackler (82) last season, anchors a linebacker corps that also returns Christian Spitler and re-adds Davis. Yew said the final outside linebacker spot in Central’s 4-4 defense was “up for grabs” between Andrew Daugherty, Mullins and Langdon Spiggle as of Aug. 14.

In the secondary, Clanton will once again play cornerback, and Yew said junior Nick Houghton has moved to corner from safety, a position Bright will man this season.

“Just flying to the ball is the biggest thing we need to work on right now,” Yew said of the defense. “We have good size. We have returning experience at linebacker. Three of our four linebackers have been starters for us before, two of our defensive linemen, so five of the front seven have played a lot of football for us already.”

Miller and Dean Woodwell have been handling kickoffs during practice, Yew said. Those two, plus Davis and Spitler, are all capable of handling the punting duties this fall, he added.

Central opens the 2017 season with a home game against Skyline on Aug. 25.

“Our goals start out the same. Number one, be the county champion. Number two, have a shot at wining the district title. Number three, get in the playoffs and just be playing the best football you can play then,” Yew said.

“This year I don’t know where we’ll end up. Our goal is to be in the playoffs, have the best seed we can have and be playing our best football in mid-November.”