By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Randolph-Macon Academy coach Frank Sullivan isn't looking to reinvent the proverbial wheel in regards to the Yellow Jackets' offense this season, but that doesn't mean the seventh-year coach hasn't been tinkering a bit.
The Yellow Jackets had a solid, if not spectacular, season running predominantly out of the wing-T last season. And with two-thirds of the starting backfield returning in halfback Kevin Slaton and fullback Jonathan Moore, rest assured R-MA will still be keeping the ball on the ground whenever that's to their benefit.
The Yellow Jackets do have to replace starting quarterback Ryan Pile, and with two solid prospects joining the program this season to battle for the position it's put Sullivan in the mind to potentially expand the playbook.
"We're tinkering with a little bit of the Pistol formation, but running the same stuff," Sullivan said. "We're trying to become a little bit more diverse."
Senior Garrett Cavanaugh (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) and junior Jack Braymer (6-2, 170) both offer good size and strong throwing arms. Neither played quarterback at their previous schools -- both were wide receivers on offense -- nor Sullivan admitted that the transition to QB has left "their heads spinning" in the early going. Still, Sullivan has seen enough to start planning to throw the ball a bit more this season. Last year, the Yellow Jackets passed for just 201 yards in nine games while rushing for 2,371.
"We're not going to come out and run the 'Air Raid' by any means," Sullivan said. "We're going to diversify, but we're not going to be throwing it around 30 times a game.
"In our case, we get quite a few new kids into the school every year. Some of them are good athletes, but they never played quarterback at their other school. It helps the learning process. They're already back there. They don't necessarily have to learn the drops and things like that. So [the Pistol offense] gives them a better chance to succeed right away."
Easing the transition for whoever starts at quarterback at R-MA will be Slaton (83 rushes for 603 yards, 5 TDs) and Moore (76-517-8 TDs). Slaton is a four-year starter for the Yellow Jackets, while Moore burst on the scene last year in the third game. That leaves only leading rusher and first-team all-Patriot Conference pick Andre Lake, who's now playing for Shenandoah, to replace as a primary ball carrier. Both Slaton and Moore were honorable mention all-conference picks last year as running backs.
"We think we have some pretty good competition going on at some of the other spots with some athletic kids who played a lot last year on special teams and were able to learn from Andre and Kevin, and they're battling for that other halfback position," Sullivan said.
Among the group are junior Ayebalayefaa "Faa Faa" Eke-Spiff, junior Slayton Speer and junior Oluwatimileyin "Timmy" Idowu.
R-MA returns both starting wide receivers from last season, although neither did much receiving in the Yellow Jackets' ground-based offense. That should change some this year, as senior Carson Holder (6-4, 195) and senior Troy White (5-10, 155) are primed to get more touches.
"[Carson's] a big target and came in great shape," Sullivan said. "He and Troy White are both back, so that's both our starters from last year."
The Yellow Jackets also welcome back two starters on the offensive line. Senior Emmanuel Arellano will be shifting from right tackle to center this season. Billy Choi, another honorable mention all-Patriot pick last year, is also back to man the left tackle spot. Sullivan said he also has three players -- seniors Ming Gong and David Lee, and junior Malik Cochran -- returning after getting "quality reps" last season on the offensive line. R-MA also welcomes back senior Victor Marshall, who enrolled too late to play last season after previously suiting up for the Yellow Jackets.
"We're just starting to mix and match them, see which ones are tackles and which ones are guards," Sullivan said.
On defense, R-MA is also transitioning to something a bit different. Long a 4-3 base defense, Sullivan said the Yellow Jackets are giving a hard look to the 4-4 alignment to make better use of improved overall team speed this season.
"We have a number of pretty good athletes, so we may go a little more to the 4-4," Sullivan said. "We're a traditional 4-3 team, but right now we'll be playing all 4-4. We have a lot more kids that are sort of in between. They're not quite defensive backs, they're not quite linebackers so we figured we might as well play with two outside linebackers rather than try to force a square peg into a round hole."
Moore, R-MA's leading tackler last year with 50 stops, is the lone returner at linebacker. A first-team all-Patriot pick, Moore played inside last season. He'll be outside this year. Candidates for the two inside spots and the remaining outside linebacker jobs are junior Austin Lee, junior Matt Montgomery, Marshall and junior Michael Ndigwe.
"We think we have a little more wiggle room with the 4-4," Sullivan said. "We don't need four true linebackers, we need two and we're going to find them."
The Yellow Jackets' defensive line will feature a new look following the graduation departures of all-conference picks Nicholas Anderson, Felipe Angulo and William Dennis. Holder (defensive end) and Arellano both started on the defensive line last year, giving R-MA some stability there. Sullivan said Cochran likely will slot in somewhere along the line, and he's excited about sophomore newcomer Louis Lindsay (6-5, 220) as a potential gap-filling defensive tackle.
"We're smaller up front, that's for sure," Sullivan said. "We'll adjust accordingly to that."
The secondary should be a strength with Slaton and White returning as starters. Slaton was an honorable mention all-Patriot pick as a safety last year, and White will hold down one of the cornerback spots. Cavanaugh is a solid contender to join Slaton as the Yellow Jackets' other safety, while Idowu, Speer and junior Tyler Vaughan are all getting looked at as cornerbacks.
The Yellow Jackets fielded the area's top defense last season, surrendering only 214.2 yards per contest to help the team finish second behind only Fredericksburg Christian in the newly-formed Patriot Conference.
"I thought it went pretty well," Sullivan said. "Fredericksburg Christian was strong, they ended up being a finalist in their class I believe and lost in the finals. Massanutten had a strong team and we had a decent showing, so I think it's going to be another battle again this year."
Ben Gillis, a standout soccer player who moonlighted as R-MA's kicker last year, is expected to reprise that role this season. An honorable mention all-Patriot pick, Gillis connected on 24 of 26 point-after attempts and hit a pair of field goals for the Yellow Jackets last year. He's also expected to contend for the starting punting job. Slaton, White and Cavanaugh are penciled in for returns.
For the first time in several seasons, R-MA will have a full 10-game schedule after playing just nine for the past few years. Sullivan thinks his squad is up for the full grind this season.
"We pretty much returned everybody on our team from last year that didn't graduate," Sullivan said. "It's been that way for two years, so that's a good sign."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>