By Jeff Nations -- email@example.com
WOODSTOCK -- Adapt and evolve -- it's a strategy Massanutten Military Academy's football program has wholeheartedly embraced heading into the 2012 season.
After two years of running the spread option on offense and defending out of a base 3-3-stack formation, the Colonels have chucked the past in favor of something new on both sides of the ball for this season. Third-year coach Chris Gilliland said he thinks the changes should better suit the smaller, quicker group he's got this season.
"Offensively we are changing some things," Gilliland said. "We really are trying to get away from the spread, triple-option stuff that we've been in the past under center. We're moving more towards a gun read zone-type team. We're trying to get the ball on the perimeter. We've got a couple guys who can really fly on the outside. We've got some good slots, Houston [Walls] included. If you get the ball in their hands, they're pretty electric."
Walls, a rising junior, is MMA's top threat out of the backfield. Last year, he gained a team-high 557 rushing yards on just 54 carries (10.3 yards per attempt) and scored four touchdowns. Walls also had 12 receptions for 155 yards and a score, and will be counted on for even more this year.
"Since I've been here, he's the best football player that I've coached," Gilliland said. "Understands the game, can catch anything -- he's small, but whatever college takes a chance on him, they're going to get a good football player and a great kid."
The Colonels lost explosive wide receiver Cameron Williams (team-high 37 catches for 596 yards, 8 TDs) to graduation, taking away the favorite target of returning starting quarterback Kenya Ray-Abrams. The rising senior has shown nothing if not the ability to adapt, though. Last year, his first as a starter, Ray-Abrams passed for 794 yards and rushed for 523 more for MMA.
"As a first-year quarterback, he definitely went through the gauntlet," Gilliland said. "I threw a lot of stuff at him and very rarely did he ever complain about anything. That's probably the best attribute he's got -- he's not going to complain about things, he's just going to do it. He's got that competitive desire."
Imposing 6-foot-4 wideout Jamauri Richardson looks primed for a breakout season after a stellar summer on the football combine circuit, and backup quarterback Sean Kincaid should also see time at wideout. And, of course, Walls is a dangerous receiver out of the backfield.
"We're going to try to use all the weapons we can use," Gilliland said. "With a smaller line like we have, it doesn't make much sense to run a bunch of power plays and stuff up the middle. We're trying to get the ball to the perimeter -- screens and draws -- run the read zone if we can and see what we can do."
The Colonels return three starters on the offensive line -- senior Robert Manci, plus juniors Nicky Sanders and Eric Crawley.
On the defensive side, the Colonels are shifting to a 4-3 base alignment with an eye toward slowing down the run game.
"The kids like it a little bit better, it's a little bit easier for them to understand," Gilliland said. "Hopefully, less big plays -- we'll see."
A huge part of MMA's defense wasn't around for the start of preseason practice -- rising senior Arpy Augustus was still with his family back home in Switzerland as the Colonels opened practice and Gilliland didn't expect him for a couple weeks.
If and when Augustus does arrive, it will definitely be better late than never. Last year, the 6-2, 240-pounder earned second-team Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association all-state honors after notching a team-high 81 tackles. Gilliland thinks Augustus has real potential to play at the collegiate level.
"In my mind, he's a stand-up outside linebacker in a 3-4," Gilliland said. "He's a guy who can come off the edge. He's not afraid to get out in coverage. He's going to play defensive end for us in the 4-3."
Defensive tackle Xin Yin also returns up front, and Sanders (middle linebacker) and Kincaid (outside linebacker) provide more starting experience back for the Colonels. Sanders was an honorable mention all-state pick last year.
Richardson, last year's starting free safety, and Walls (strong safety) give MMA a stout final line of defense.
Walls, also an honorable mention all-state pick on defense last year, thinks the new defense will help slow the run this year. Last year's 5-5 record was a marked improvement over the previous 3-7 season, but Walls is ready for a winning campaign.
"We could've done a lot better if we would have stopped arguing with each other," Walls said. "But we did pretty well, a lot better than people thought we were going to."
Gilliland likes what he's seen of his team as the Colonels prepare to play in the newly-formed Patriot Football Conference.