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By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- While Skyline defensive end Nick Helmick spent the better part of his sophomore season learning from Luke Pingley, he's spent the better part of this preseason trying to replace Pingley.
"Luke, he was a good friend of mine," Helmick said. "He [left some] big shoes to fill. He did great in everything he did."
Pingley, Skyline's former standout defensive end, has graduated and now plays at Liberty University. With him goes his 50 tackles and five sacks -- all of which he acquired in an injury-shortened season.
But Skyline coach Heath Gilbert doesn't see Pingley's vacancy being too heavy a burden for Helmick.
"He comes from a good family, and they understand athletics and they help encourage him to make sure he's making the right decisions in the offseason," Gilbert said. "For him to go to the next level, which I think he should, he knows [what] he needs to do."
Helmick registered 26 tackles and two sacks last season as a sophomore. And with an experienced secondary playing behind him this season, Helmick's tenacity on the line of scrimmage represents only one dynamic of a Skyline defense Gilbert is excited to watch. Brenden O'Conner, Zack Robinson and Pablo Aguirre will all see time at defensive end, too.
But there's no hiding the fact that Helmick is the focus of the Hawks' defensive line, as a producer and a leader.
"I like Nick's size and athleticism, I like his toughness, his leadership," Gilbert said. "He can run all day, and those [attributes] are very important.
"The biggest thing is his leadership: When he is doing the right thing and pushing hard, it's hard for those other guys not to do the same."
And the keys to Helmick's progress? Pretty much the usual. Lifting in the offseason. Going all out in practice. Trying to keep up with the other Northwestern District linemen capable of contending with his 6-4, 205-pound frame.
"I'm just trying to get a whole lot stronger and a little quicker than last year," he said. "There's some big boys in this district, so I'm just trying to get stronger and compete with them."
That Helmick has played on the defensive line his entire football career is largely irrelevant. It doesn't mean the position comes to him any easier. There are always points at which he excels, and points at which he needs work, he said.
So rather than look at what he's accomplished for inspiration, Helmick looks to where Pingley has gone, and where he would like to go.
"It's very inspiring because [Pingley's] going places where not many kids in the program, or any program, get to go," Helmick said. "It's a hard thing to get to, and hopefully I can do it."