By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Strasburg head coach Mark Roller heads into the 2013 high school football season tasked with answering a question that hasn't needed to be asked over the past several seasons -- who is going to carry the load at running back for the Rams?
Roller and the Rams previously had the luxury of having a handful of qualified candidates in the backfield, headlined by all-state running back Rakwon White. Those days are now gone.
Strasburg's top four leading rushers from last season were lost to graduation -- including White, who rushed for 2,467 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2012 -- leaving Strasburg with a gaping void in arguably the most important position in its run-heavy Pro-I offense.
"I think what we lost is definitely going to be hard to replace, but at the same time I think coming into the season we've got a couple young backs, and I think that they can handle the duties there," Roller said. "Instead of us being able to break one for a long run like we did last year, I think this year it's going to be four or five yards and a cloud of dust. We'll break a few, but certainly I don't think we expect anything like we had last year."
Strasburg -- which went 10-2 last season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs -- averaged 384.1 yards per game last season while racking up an area-high 3,692 total yards on the ground in 2012. In addition to the loss of White's impressive output, the Rams will also be missing the ground production of quarterback Troy Gordon (640 yards, 12 touchdowns), fullback Darius Lozado (303 yards, four touchdowns) and running back Todd Dean (157 yards, three touchdowns).
Roller said that senior Michael Conley and junior Colton Funk figure to see a bulk of the carries this season out of the running back position, but neither offers Strasburg much in the way of varsity experience. Both Conley and Funk battled injuries last season and saw very limited action.
Funk is currently the early favorite to see a majority of the carries, but Roller said Strasburg may also choose to split the carries between the two backs.
"Unless one stands out more than the other, we'll probably go running back by committee and see who does the best," Roller said. "Fortunately for us we've got some guys back on the offensive line that saw some time last year, so that kind of gives us a good feeling going into that, because the whole backfield is going to be brand new."
The Rams also face the challenge of replacing Gordon's arm at the quarterback position, where he accounted for 885 yards and 13 touchdowns through the air last year. Junior Mark Smoot, who served as Gordon's backup in 2012, will start under center this season.
Smoot lacks the mobility of his predecessor, but Roller said Smoot has the ability to stretch the field with the deep ball.
"Mark brings a presence of being around the game all of his life and I certainly think he can throw it a little bit," Roller said. "He's certainly not going to be able to move around in the pocket like Troy was and get away from people, but his presence, just being around the game all of his life, is going to be an asset for us."
The uncertainty in Strasburg's backfield should be aided somewhat by a fairly experienced offensive line, led by senior lineman Trenton Davis and senior tight end Jonathan Kloosterman. Juniors Joe Giallonardo and Aaron Lozado -- both of whom saw significant playing time last season -- will also help anchor the offensive line.
Smoot will also have some experienced targets to throw to in Kloosterman (17 catches, 299 yards, five touchdowns) and senior receivers Colt Cowgill and Matt Clutter, although the Rams did lose junior Tommy Caison, who recently transferred to Central.
Although the offensive line won't be afforded the luxury of Gordon's mobility if things break down this season, Davis said that isn't a concern for the Rams.
"You've just got to block a little bit longer, it's not much different," Davis said. "Troy could just take a play and turn nothing into something. I think we're confident in ourselves that we can protect Mark long enough that he can do something back there."
Defensively the Rams should be strong up front, with Kloosterman (team-high 96 tackles), Davis (50 tackles), Giallonardo and Ryan Smoot all returning to the defensive line this season, although Kloosterman -- a first team all-Group A, Division 2 defensive end last year -- will be moved around on defense and figures to see significant playing time at middle linebacker.
Strasburg will be inexperienced at linebacker with Funk and Conley stepping into starting roles along with junior Zach McDonald, but the secondary returns some experience with Cowgill (three interceptions) and Clutter manning two of the three defensive backfield spots.
Justin Carr, who filled in at kicker when Dean was sidelined with an ankle injury last season, will handle the kicking duties this year.
The Rams face a tough schedule this season, with fellow Class 2A-East member East Rockingham and Class 4A James Wood listed on the nondistrict slate.
"We'll really see what we're made of early on. It's a tough schedule," Roller said. "And then of course we open up with Clarke County in our district, and it just doesn't get any easier. There are some tough teams that we'll have to play and it's something that we just have to prepare for them and play our best."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org