Football Preview 2017: Skyline seeking to rebound after missing playoffs in 2016

Skyline High School head coach Heath Gilbert runs his football team through drills during a recent practice. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Skyline High School head football coach Heath Gilbert has placed a premium on increasing the amount of offseason participation among his players. With the Hawks seeking to rebound from disappointing 2-8 season, that participation became as important as ever in the seven months leading up to the first preseason practice.

Gilbert said recently he put the onus on his players when addressing them about putting in the necessary offseason work to become more competitive on the football field. Twenty-seven players earned “commitment shirts” awarded for attending at least 21 of Skyline’s 27 summer sessions ahead of the new season, an increase of six players from the previous year.

That total is still well off Gilbert’s stated goal of handing out over 50 of those shirts each offseason, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“We are better. We’re stronger. We’re faster,” Gilbert said earlier this month. “Hopefully that’s gonna translate.”

Skyline’s struggles in 2016 snapped a streak of four straight seasons with a playoff appearance, but the inexperience that plagued the Hawks a year ago is no longer such an imposing obstacle.

The Hawks return nine starters on offense and seven on defense and, pairing that experience with a more favorable schedule, should expect improvement from a 2016 team that was shut out three times and allowed 42.4 points per game.

Ryan Scott, a senior, is entering his second season as the Hawks’ starting quarterback and is coming off a 2016 season in which he accounted for nearly 2,000 yards of total offense – including 1,544 yards passing – and 13 total touchdowns.

Skyline also brings back its top three running backs from a season ago – the senior trio of Quentin Diggs (439 yards rushing, five touchdowns), Tucker Fortney (339 yards, five TDs) and Kyle McHugh – and its top two receivers, seniors Luis Garcia and Trenton King, who combined for 67 receptions, 963 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016.

Gilbert said the emergence of Caleb Reedy, a junior with big-play ability, and senior Matt Rutherford, among others, helped the receiving corps grade out the highest among all position groups in Skyline’s first intrasquad scrimmage in early August.

“We expect those guys to get open and make plays,” Gilbert said. “We have a very talented quarterback getting them the ball. We do have high expectations for them.”

The Hawks also return three starters along the offensive line in senior Cedric Ausberry (6-foot-2, 279 pounds) and juniors Ethan Nowell (6-0, 220) and Marcel Roy (5-11, 258).

“Ranking them last year, Marcel was maybe on the bottom but this year it’s been a total change. He’s turning into an alpha for us, which is fantastic. Really excited about his growth,” Gilbert said.

“Ethan brings that tough nastiness to his game. Cedric is a big athlete that’s perfect for your left tackle. He’s got the basketball feet. He’s got good size. … We like what we have there and the pieces around it to fill in have been pretty solid too.”

Defensively, Skyline has a veteran back seven that includes linebackers Fortney, McHugh and senior Justin Jenkins (66 tackles in 2016), cornerbacks King and junior Ty Clingerman (eight passes defended, one interception) and safeties Rutherford (42 tackles, two interceptions) and senior Bailey Smeltzer.

The Hawks will be brand-new on the defensive line, however, a concern for a team that surrendered 303.5 yards rushing per game last season.

Gilbert said on Aug. 11 that Nowell and junior Nathan Abel were in line to snag starting spots at end and Roy and junior Jacob Grady at the tackle positions. The head coach added that a group that includes Cody Lykins, Jayden Norwood, Tyler Compton and Tyler Hugo has “great potential” along the defensive line.

“At least it’s a thing where we have some pieces there that at least we have some size and weight guys that can do it,” Gilbert said of the concern around the Hawks’ revamped D-line. “It’s just a matter of putting it together and understanding what the offensive lineman’s trying to do to you and how you need to react when he does this compared to that. If that can happen, you know, we can have an exciting season.”

Skyline kicks off its 2017 season with a road game at Central on Aug. 25.

As a result of the expansion of the Northwestern District to 13 teams (split into Class 3 and Class 4 divisions under the VHSL’s new realignment), the Hawks will play what Gilbert considers a more competitively balanced schedule this fall.

Skyline, which remains a Class 3 (formerly Group 3A) member, has dropped Sherando (Class 4), Millbrook (Class 4) and John Champe (Class 5) – three teams that combined to outscore the Hawks 184-41 in 2016 – in place of Culpeper County (Class 3), William Monroe (Class 3) and Strasburg (Class 2).

“It has an impact across the coaching staff, it has an impact on the kids. You feel like every week that we have a chance to be in the game,” Gilbert said.

“I’m not saying we’re gonna win all of our games. I’m not saying that at all. But I just feel like we can compete every week, which is exciting.”