By Jeff Nations -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- What a difference a year makes.
That's the way Skyline senior starting quarterback Aaron Jeremiah felt most every time he stepped up to the line of scrimmage during the Hawks' practices heading into this season. Last year, the new read option element of Skyline's power-I offense was a work in progress throughout the season. Now, that work is finished as far as Jeremiah is concerned.
"We're looking pretty good," Jeremiah said. "We've got the new offense down pat pretty good. I'm feeling a lot more comfortable. It's much easier for me."
What Jeremiah feels is echoed throughout the roster, as the Hawks gear up to take the next step after finishing as part of a three-way tie atop the Northwestern District regular-season standings. This year, Skyline is aiming to make the Group AA state playoffs.
Having an experienced signal caller like Jeremiah could go a long way toward making that happen. Last year, the rising senior showed just how effective that read option could be by leading the team in rushing with 549 yards and six touchdowns. He also passed for 749 yards and eight touchdowns.
"We really like it," Skyline coach Heath Gilbert said of the read option. "It really fits our personnel because most kids who can run can take really take advantage of a kid overplaying one way or the other."
The Hawks, coming off a 4-6 campaign, return 10 starters on offense this year. In addition to Jeremiah, the backfield has both starting running backs returning in Dayvon Haight (398 rushing yards, 5 TDs) and bruising 5-foot-11, 235-pound fullback Chris Grady.
They'll have a deep, experienced line to run behind this year. Four starters return to the unit, including second-team all-Northwestern pick Travis Siever, plus seniors Brendan O'Connor and Anthony Meador. Chase Clatterbuck and Ronnie Clifton look to round out the starting group.
O'Connor, for one, looks primed for a breakout season.
"Brendan put 25 pounds of muscle on this off-season," Gilbert said. "He finished last year at tackle at 180 pounds, and he's 205 pounds now, maybe even a little bit bigger."
Nick Helmick is a matchup nightmare at tight end. Last year, the 6-5, 220-pound senior earned second-team all-district honors after catching 13 passes for 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Also a first-team all-district pick at defensive end, Helmick has already gotten a verbal offer to play at James Madison University next year.
The Hawks will have to find other targets for Jeremiah in the passing game after losing leading receiver Jonta Baltimore to graduation. Marcus Turner is back after making nine catches for 151 yards and a pair of touchdowns last year, and Gilbert has liked what he's seen from newcomers Kylmen Breeden and Hunter Stewart.
On defense, the Hawks have eight starters back from last year's squad. Helmick, who tallied 55 tackles and 7 1/2 sacks a year ago, is a menace at defensive end. Middle linebacker Zack Blair, also a first-team all-district pick last year, compiled a school-record 120 tackles in 2011.
"We've got a lot of starters coming back, a bunch of seniors -- our whole d-line is pretty much back from last year, our linebackers -- we should be very sound defensively," Helmick said.
Joining Helmick along the defensive line are O'Connor at the other defensive end spot, plus Grady (moving from linebacker to nose tackle), Travis Siever and Jonathan Kisner. Chase Clatterbuck, David Heisler and Ronnie Clifton are also in the mix.
"I really like our front four," Gilbert said. "We've got eight really good kids, I think, and we can kind of come at you in waves and keep people fresh. A lot of these kids are playing both ways, so it's nice to have some depth."
Blair anchors the linebacking corps. The Hawks must find another linebacker to play alongside Blair in the middle, with Tyler Jeremiah, Jacob Sims, Darryl Jordan and Gerren Butler all possible answers. A slew of contenders battled for time during preseason practice for time at outside linebacker, including Xavier Roy, Dallas Orndorff, Chaz Rutherford, Sebastian Brune, Brandon Sims, Corvon Thomas and Deante Hogan.
The secondary had the biggest graduation losses from last year.
"Defensively, the biggest worry is replacing our perimeter defense, having Jonta and Kwaunte graduate, and then Taylor Jeffries and Trayvon Freeman -- those guys did a great job of protecting the edge and against the deep ball," Gilbert said. "That's our biggest concern."
Breeden and Hunter have looked solid in camp, and other seniors who factor include Dalante Jackson, Haight, Aaron Jeremiah and Marquise Lewis.