By Jeff Nations -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- A casual observer at a Warren County football preseason practice might have noticed something about coach Tony Tallent -- a sense of serenity, perhaps, and definitely a little extra pep in his step.
Makes sense, considering the senior group Tallent has to lean on in hopes of getting the Wildcats back to the Group AA state playoffs this season. Warren County opened the fall preseason practice schedule with 21 seniors on the roster, the biggest group Tallent has ever had going into a season.
And it's not just sheer numbers, either -- the Wildcats have plenty of game experience to go along with that somewhat grizzled look they're sporting.
"Tyler Post is a four-year starter at quarterback, so we feel pretty solid there," Tallent said. "Matt Nicholson has been a playmaker on both side of the ball for a couple years, especially starting at free safety on defense since he was a sophomore. Chris Larsen has been dynamic on both sides of the ball, as well."
Post was a second-team all-Evergreen District selection last year at quarterback after passing for 1,013 years and 10 touchdowns as a junior. He is also a dangerous runner, piling up 346 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 81 carries last season.
"I think Tyler's able to handle the offense," Tallent said. "He is able to read secondary coverages and actually read down linemen much better. I know that he's able to get us in and out of plays that may be called negative, just from the way the defense has set up. He minimizes when things aren't good for us, and maximizes when there's potential for big gains."
One massive safety valve Warren County's offense won't have this year is Gage Steele in the backfield. Steele, a bruising runner on the offensive side who gained a team-high 984 yards (8.3 yards per carry) and 13 TDs on the ground last year, is now playing linebacker at James Madison. Steele's numbers were actually down from his junior season, due to a combination of reduced carries due to early season blowouts and an injury late in the year.
"Obviously we'll miss his production," Tallent said. "But part of it is, those kids have gotten snaps under their belt to be able to step in. Timmy Green, we're really excited about him at running back. Jeff Budwash is back -- he is a fullback, but we do a lot of one-back sets so he is back there."
Green, a tailback, tallied 288 rushing yards and two touchdowns last year. Budwash, primarily a fullback, was good for 94 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries.
"We have people stepping into that role, trying to fill the shoes of Gage," Nicholson said. "But we're moving on from him now, trying to do what we do."
Nicholson (14 receptions for 295 yards, 5 TDs) is a true deep threat at wide receiver, and Chris Larsen made the most of his catches last year (8-196-3 TDs) by averaging 24.5 yards per reception. Those two help ease the graduation loss of Damien Wright, a first-team all-district pick at wide receiver last year.
Tallent is also high on returning tight end Zane Grudzinski, who had 10 catches for 104 yards last year.
"Zane Grudzinski is a three-year starter at tight end," Tallent said. "I'm really excited about what Zane brings to us as a tight end who can stand up, who can flex out wide and who really is so versatile. He's got good range, good hands."
The Wildcats lost first-team all-district guard Gideon Anderson to graduation, but do return three starters to the offensive line in center Dimitri Hare and tackles Sasha Harris and Zach Poehler.
Defensively, the Wildcats lost one-half of a first-team all-Evergreen linebacking combo with leading tackler Steele's departure to JMU. Budwash (86 tackles, 2 sacks) was the other half of that duo and he's back to anchor the unit.
Second-team all-Evergreen defensive lineman Glen Pinard returns along the front along with fellow starter Timmy Green, plus part-time starter Derron Yates.
The secondary should be lethal for would-be passers, as Post is back at a corner after a first-team all-district performance topped by an area-best seven interceptions. Nicholson (42 tackles, 3 INTs) was a second-team all-Evergreen pick at free safety.
On special teams, senior Nick Wheeler and junior Blake Steele give the Wildcats plenty of experience in the kicking game.
Experience is practically a buzzword for the Wildcats this year, as Tallent is banking on not just his seniors but also a tested group of juniors to have an impact this season.
"We were able to get some young kids some experience last year, so we feel like we're putting some kids in who have had some game experience even though they weren't starters last year.
"There was one game last year where we started and played most of the game (vs. Brentsville) due to some injuries and everything else, with all juniors and sophomores. They performed pretty well, and those kids have gotten stronger and gotten bigger."
Heading back into another season in the rugged Evergreen District presents the usual challenges for the Wildcats.
"You looked at the division playoffs last year, and you had four of our five teams in the playoffs," Tallent said. "And the top teams were all seeded really, really high. You're talking about half the eight [playoff slots] being filled by one district. That's a testament to how tough the Evergreen is."
Tallent is confident that his team will take the right approach in preparing each practice to go out and perform.
"I feel comfortable that they know what we're asking, that they won't look ahead," Tallent said. "I think that's something we've ingrained in them."