By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- If Massanutten Military Academy football coach Chris Gilliland could pick just one player to rebuild the Colonels around, odds are better than even that senior Houston Walls would be that guy.
It's not as bad as all that for MMA -- Walls is indeed back to start both ways for the fourth straight season, and the Colonels do have a few other starters back from last year's squad.
Just a few, though. MMA can count just two returning starters on both sides of the ball this season. That includes the do-everything Walls, who led the area with seven interceptions last season as a defensive back, ran for nearly 10 yards a pop (478 rushing yards, 9.9 ypg) as a running back and snared 13 passes for 193 yards out of the backfield or flared out along the Colonels' no-huddle, spread offense last year.
"He's just going to be an animal," Gilliland said of Walls, slated to start again as a free safety and wide receiver this year. "We put him out wide to keep him away from injury and maybe give him a chance to make some plays on the outside."
Playmakers could be at a premium for MMA's offense this season, considering what the Colonels lost from last year's explosive attack. Chief among the graduation departures is starting quarterback Kenya Ray-Abrams, the Patriot Conference's Offensive Player of the Year last season after passing for an area-best 2,659 yards and rushing for another 752 (team-high) yards. Ray-Abrams is currently battling for the starting quarterback slot at The Apprentice School.
That's not all -- top wideout Travis Fulgham, a dazzling playmaker who led the area with 58 receptions for 1,614 yards and 14 touchdowns, transferred in the summer to Broad Run. He's now receiving some NCAA Division I interest.
"It's probably the best spot for him," Gilliland said of Fulgham. "I would've loved to have had him another year, but it's closer to home and closer to his family."
Fellow wideout Jamauri Richardson, like Fulgham a serious matchup problem for opponents, is also gone after graduating and is currently enrolled in a prep school. First-team all-Patriot tight end Chase McDevitt and first-team offensive lineman Daniel Fink are also gone, more graduation losses for MMA to absorb.
"We lost a bunch of seniors last year, we had a couple guys transfer at the end of this past season," Gilliland said. "So we lost some key guys at some key positions."
Gilliland has a roster he hopes will reach the mid to high 20s before the season starts, with precious little experience. That doesn't mean there's no talent, though. Gilliland thinks MMA has the players ready to step in and carry on what the offense accomplished last year.
That starts with quarterback, where the Colonels have at least three viable options. Senior Justin Elshafie, a left-hander, is a good bet to start but will be pushed by junior transfer Derik Duklis and junior Damoni Gunter.
Duklis has been a revelation for the Colonels, and is already drawing comparisons to some of MMA's top departed skill players. Gilliland plans to use the junior speedster all over the field this season.
"He's a lot like Kenya was in terms of versatility, and a great receiver," Gilliland said. "He's a junior and I'm hoping to have him for two years, as well. He's going to make plays. He doesn't have the height that Travis or Jamauri have, but he's got the hands that Travis has. Maybe not as fast, but still pretty quick. He has a nose for finding spots."
If Elshafie holds down the starting quarterback spot, Gilliland has penciled in a four-wideout set of Duklis, Walls, Gunter and newcomer Erin Carter.
"We're running the same offense," Gilliland said. "We've got a couple guys who can really run."
The running backs will be new, with junior transfer Josh Holt and freshman Josh Kovach getting early looks to carry the ball.
Starting center Eric Crawley is the lone holdover on the offensive line.
"He's played center pretty much every game since his sophomore season," Gilliland said. "That brings a little bit of stability to the line."
MMA's defense was similarly hard-hit by graduation losses, with only defensive lineman Ian Thomas and Walls back to reprise starting roles in the Colonels' base 4-3 alignment.
"Defensively we're replacing a lot," Gilliland said. "Houston will still be in the defensive backfield, playing free safety. That'll help out a little bit."
Walls, a first-team all-Patriot pick last year, tallied 45 tackles for a unit that had trouble stopping opponents at times last year.
Beyond Walls and Thomas, the Colonels will be shuffling in largely a new cast on defense.
"To be honest with you, I would love for us to score a bunch of points," Gilliland said. "Hopefully, defensively we can hold up. Hopefully, offensively we don't throw too many interceptions that get returned for touchdowns, or special teams mishaps that cause games to look more lopsided than they were."
MMA will play just a nine-game schedule this year, and the finale against Maryland School for the Deaf could potentially not happen, as well, depending on that school's playoff pursuit.
Regardless of how many games MMA plays this season, Gilliland thinks this year's team has plenty of potential to make some noise in the Patriot Conference this season.
"We're not going to change what we're doing," Gilliland said. "I know we've only got a couple kids who are returning, but those guys are key guys. They know the offense, they know the defense, they're kind of the captains on both sides of the ball. I'm going to try and keep things as uniform as I can."
"I feel like if we can get to the edge of a defense, then we're one step ahead. We're going to incorporate some of the option stuff like we did last year. We may run a little bit more than we did in the past. My first year here, we were a spread but we ran the triple option. We got away from that a little bit and opened up the passing game a little bit more."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>