By Jeff Nations -- email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Frank Sullivan has questions and precious little time to gain all the answers he needs before Randolph-Macon Academy's football season gets under way.
The Yellow Jackets open a full week earlier than last year, leaving Sullivan, R-MA's sixth-year head coach, with a condensed window get his team in shape for the season opener on Saturday night, Sept. 1, at Rappahannock County.
"It's our first weekend of school, so it'll be good for the kids," Sullivan said.
Between the first day of practice and that season opener on the road, Sullivan had the daunting task of finding a new quarterback and a fresh set of wide receivers for him to throw the ball to this year.
Rising senior Ryan Pile opened preseason practice as the starting quarterback after backing up Collin McCabe last year.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous, but I'm ready for it," Pile said. "I was second-string last year. I went in to a few games, did a few running plays but nothing more than that."
Sullivan is confident Pile will handle the offense for the Yellow Jackets this season.
"McCabe was a nice, steady kid with a good head on his shoulders," Sullivan said. "Pretty much the spitting image of Ryan. Whenever you talk to them, they're the same kid."
With the graduation losses of McCabe plus top receivers Jason Branch and Donovan Farmer, Sullivan admits that R-MA's multiple offense might lean a little more heavily on the ground game this year. That's not a bad option, with returning tailbacks Kevin Slaton (80 rushes for 480 yards, 3 TDs last year) and Andre Lake (60-253-2 TDs) ready to increase their workloads in the backfield. R-MA will have to find a new fullback, after losing both Joe Gillette and Ian Richardson to graduation.
"We may be a little more run-based this year than we were last year, but time will tell," Sullivan said on the first day of practice. "You never know how we're going to look in a week."
Another plus for the Yellow Jackets is the offensive line, where the top seven players from last season's squad are all back. Included among that group is rising senior Nicholas Anderson, who graded out at 82 percent at offensive guard and rated as the team's top offensive lineman last year. William Dennis, Felipe Angulo, Bill Choi and Thomas Abell all looked to join Anderson as starters on both sides of the line, although Sullivan said he has several other linemen "nipping at their heels."
Gillette was a huge loss on both sides of the line. A three-year starter, Gillette served as team captain last year and tallied 69 tackles in eight games at middle linebacker.
Anderson is slated to step in and take over at middle linebacker for the Yellow Jackets this season. Last season on the defensive line, Anderson tallied a team-best four sacks along with 34 tackles.
The Yellow Jackets have plenty of depth along the defensive line, even after finding replacements in the linebacking corps. Among the options, Angulo tallied 23 tackles and two sacks last year.
"We return a lot of kids," Sullivan said. "We took our lumps a little bit last year at times, but we return our top seven on both sides of the ball. I'm optimistic."
The secondary should be a strength, with three of four starters back from last year's squad. Among them is the running back tandem of Slaton (strong safety) and Lake (cornerback).
"Last year we just sort of split time with him and Andre and just tried to get him playing full-time defense," Sullivan said. "It worked out well, and this year they're both going to start both ways."
Nathaniel Nguyen, who played opposite Lake at cornerback, will have to be replaced after leading the team last year with three interceptions. Pile, who notched 40 tackles as R-MA's starting free safety last year, may not see the field so often this year on defense as he concentrates on playing quarterback.
"We're looking for a couple kids to step up and maybe fill a spot for Ryan, but that's three-quarters of our starting secondary from last year," Sullivan said. "I'm trying to give Ryan a little bit of a break playing quarterback this year, but if it doesn't work out he's got no problem playing defense."
Special teams is another area with some holes to fill. Place kicker Ruben Marmolejo (18 for 18 on extra points, 3 of 5 on field goals including a 42-yarder last year) and punter Ian Richardson must both be replaced after graduating. Lake and Slaton are dangerous return specialists. Lake had a 78-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Quantico last year.
Pile said the Yellow Jackets are looking to improve on last year's 3-6 mark, which included an 0-5 mark at home.