By Jeremy Stafford -- email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah defensive end Mo Salih stood up to catch his breath.
The Hornets were having a productive practice in what was shaping up to be a superb preseason camp, and following a one-on-one drill with the rest of the SU defensive ends, Salih glanced over to the running backs at the other end of the field.
The senior is still astonished by what he saw: Kenone Kyle, a 6-1, 240-pound converted fullback, leapt high over the head of some poor defender.
"He's a big dude, just his physical stature alone pulls him apart from other people," Salih said. "But he moves pretty well, he has good hips. A lot of people don't know this, but he actually has some nice moves."
For a former fullback, once recruited by the University of Maryland and Georgia Tech as a linebacker, Kyle's speed and athleticism is certainly surprising, but there's no denying that the junior, at heart, is a steamroller.
"I love the contact, I love the physicality of the game," Kyle said. "I just like being physical, always running the ball."
Raised in Alexandria, Kyle was a tailback at Saint Paul VI for three years before he transferred to Thomas Edison as a fullback for his senior year. To Kyle, the transfer made complete sense: Edison was closer to his home and he was already familiar with the football team, as he often lifted with them in Edison's weight room during summer workouts.
Edison is where Kyle met former Hornets tailback Kevin Roberts, who had graduated from Edison the year prior, and it's where he met Shenandoah backup quarterback Shawn Lloyd.
After Kyle spent two seasons at Louisburg College, a junior college in Louisburg, N.C., where he focused on academics as well as football, Lloyd lured the once touted prospect to Shenandoah, where teammates met him with open arms, and head coach Paul Barnes, with the loss of Roberts and B.J. Smoot in the backfield, met him with an open roster spot.
Roberts left the Hornets this season for health reasons; Smoot, for academic reasons.
"Everybody knows: No more Kevin, no more Smoot," Salih said. "I don't know what we would do if we didn't have [Kyle] right now.
"Always knew he could play football, so when I heard he was coming up here, I was pretty excited about it."
But as confident as the Hornets were in a backfield comprised of Kyle, fullback Anthony Cordero, and tailback Brandon Hayes, there was no true indication the Hornets' rushing attack could live up to the Roberts-Smoot tandem of a year ago. Roberts rushed for 944 yards in 2008, while Smoot accumulated a Shenandoah record 1,309 all-purpose yards.
But when Kyle rushed for 114 yards on 19 carries in a 21-3 win at Catholic on Saturday, concerns about the Hornets' backfield were subdued. Cordero and Hayes rushed for 47 and 43 yards, respectively, and the Hornets racked up 213 yards on the ground that game.
What's frightening is that Kyle and Barnes both know the junior tailback was only a shell of himself at Catholic. Lurking somewhere beneath Kyle's calm, collected exterior is the true Keone Kyle; the Kyle that doesn't get tripped at the line of scrimmage, or brought down by a weak arm tackle; the Kyle that rushed for over 1,000 yards his senior year at Edison, and was wooed by a handful of ACC coaches.
"I know I could have done better than that," Kyle said of his performance last week. "My line gave me the opportunities to run better, I just didn't take them."
Which is why Barnes believes there's still so much potential for Kyle in Shenandoah's pro-style offense, saying that "the jury's still out on him."
"He's still feeling his way through the system," Barnes said. "It's gonna take a couple games ... I don't think we've seen the best yet because he's still learning everything.
"I'll tell you one thing, he's a very smart young man -- he picks things up very quickly."
In particular, Kyle has already impressed Barnes with his knack for pass protection: For recognizing blitzers and his blocking assignments, and then driving his stiff shoulder pads into the soft chest of his target.
Only two weeks into the season, Barnes can already recall more than a few occasions when Kyle has sent a blitzing linebacker tumbling to the turf, an aptness that should prove invaluable against a blitz-happy Bridgewater team, which travels to Winchester today for the Hornets' home-opener.
Although Shenandoah defeated Bridgewater last year, the once youthful Eagles are now a year stronger, a year wiser, and have spent a year mulling their first loss to SU since 1966. Bridgewater's 44-34 win over Averett on Saturday confirms just how much the Eagles have improved over the last nine months.
Hornets starting quarterback Vern Lunsford said he remembered how physical the game was last year, and how tough it was for the Hornets to earn their first win of the 2008 season. Indeed, today, the team more bruised and battered by game's end may not be the one that's beaten.
And the Hornets know that with Kyle in their backfield, another week of practice under his belt, the bruised bones and broken sprits are his to distribute.
"This being [Kyle's] first year in, the more he gets acclimated to game-speed and game-shape, he's gonna be even harder to tackle and take down," Lunsford said. "[When he] gets his legs under him a little bit more ... he gets those legs pumping ... he's gonna be hard to stop."