By Jeremy Stafford -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Cliff Woodard is bigger than he's ever been.
He's stronger, faster, more explosive off the line of scrimmage, and from the first day of practice, every one of the Hawks has taken notice of their feature running back.
"He's really explosive so, I think it will be a good thing for us this year," said junior quarterback Josiah Patrick. "I'm not putting any type of expectations on myself. It's more just managing and let Cliff do what he does."
Skyline coach Heath Gilbert agreed.
"He's our go-to back, no doubt," he said. "He's gonna get the bulk of the carries -- he's improved dramatically with his strength, his blocking, his speed has gotten better, so he's really improved over the offseason."
A year ago, there was no question Woodard would split carries with fellow tailback Kieren Caison, since both were too talented for one to be featured over the other. Caison and Woodard each rushed for 623 yards, though Woodard had only 60 carries to Caison's 84.
With Caison's graduation, Woodard has spent the entire off season knowing he would carry the workload for the Hawks in 2009.
"I just hope to improve from where I came from last year," Woodard said. "Hopefully stay healthy and just take off from where I left last year."
With the delight of Woodard's successful outing last season also came the grievous calf injury he sustained at Millbrook in September.
Woodard expects that his vigorous offseason training will ward off any potential injuries this season.
While a typical weightlifting program might call for a long period of rest in between sets, giving the muscles time to relax and recover, Woodard instead keeps his muscles under continual pressure. He gives himself 45 seconds between sets, time spent not resting but adding weight and spotting his lifting partner. Before his body has recovered from the previous set, he pumps out another one.
Woodard said he's added about 20 pounds to his bench press weight and more than 50 pounds to his squat weight.
"It's just intense, you don't get any rest, any breaks," Woodard said. "It's like training your body for what it's going to have to work for."
And Woodard will have to work.
Without the ravishing tandem of quarterback Nathaniel White and second-team all-state wideout Andrew Thorne, Skyline's passing game has taken a heavy hit.
While Gilbert said there may not be any drop-off in the transition from White to Patrick, he also said the Hawks' ability to compensate for the loss of Thorne's 837 receiving yards will depend on a combination of Woodard in the backfield and a new core of receivers.
"Our running game could control how our play action game comes along, and maybe that's where he makes up for that yardage from those kids," Gilbert said. "I'm not gonna know, obviously, until we get out there and play."
What Gilbert does know is just how talented a group of tailbacks he has waiting behind Woodard in case of injury. With Kwaunte' Stewart, Jonta Baltimore, Rodney Custer and Travis Custer all capable talents, Skyline has other options that should keep Woodard fresh and healthy for each game.
"We have kids that can run. We're getting to the point in our program where we're just gonna reload," Gilbert said. "So I'm hoping that we cannot miss a beat, that those guys will be ready to step in there and they can make plays."