By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- The numbers are sobering, at first glance anyway.
Warren County's football team, fresh off another Group AA, Division 3 playoff appearance, has precious few returning starters still on the roster as the Wildcats embark on a new chapter as part of the Bull Run District.
You can debate what constitutes a returning starter -- and Wildcats coach Tony Tallent just might -- but there's no denying Warren County lost a talented group of seniors from last year's team.
Four-year starting quarterback/defensive back Tyler Post is gone, as is VMI signee Matt Nicholson (WR/DB). All-Evergreen District picks Dimitri Hare (OL), Sasha Harris (OL), Zane Grudzinski (TE), Timmy Green (RB), Jeff Budwash (LB/RB), Chris Larsen (WR), Zack Poehler (DE) and Jacob Hill (LB) -- all graduates from a remarkable three-year run of success.
Tallent knew that day was coming, and he's been preparing all along.
"As soon as you're to that last game and you're standing in front of those kids, mentally you're looking through that crowd and already starting to assemble that. [next roster]," Tallent said.
That strong 2013 class did provide a nice parting gift for the Warren County football program -- by blowing out opponents with such regularity through much of the season, the Wildcats' senior-laden starting lineup often soon made way for the backups who've moved into their spots this year. And the numbers are strong, as well -- Tallent said 116 players came out for the team this season, and the varsity program has about 60 players on the team.
"That's a really strong turnout as compared to what we had when we first got here," Tallent said. "We really feel like these kids got some playing time last year with what we were able to do with the kids that left. We feel like they do have game experience. It might not be the beginning of the game experience, but they've been in varsity football games and have seen a good amount of action.
" ... Our speed level and our motors across the board -- our kids are high energy and they roll. I think we have a good, eclectic group of kids who really like to get after it."
Replacing Post could present a real challenge. A threat to either pass or tuck it away and run, Post won the Evergreen District Offensive Player of the Year honors last year. Senior Austin Butler is tasked with replacing Post. Although he didn't compile much in the way of offensive numbers last year, Butler did get plenty of time behind center in a mop-up role.
"Austin has really worked hard to be the quarterback -- the type of person and the type of athlete that we expect to be our quarterback," Tallent said. "He's been chomping at the bit, ready to go for years."
Seniors Demetrius Yates and Kristian Deal saw some time in the backfield last season, and move into full-time roles at running back this season.
"Both those guys are tested backs who've had some carries," said Tallent, who added Josh Newman to that list of running backs.
Tallent likes his receiving corps. Senior Jontae Rollins (11 catches for 115 yards, 1 TD) is the leading statistical returnee in another group that has deceptive experience.
"Probably on the outside, we bring our most experience back," Tallent said. "Jontae Rollins, Eric Baker, and with Josh Owens playing tight end -- he played the second tight end last year -- so we feel on that side of the ball, we've got some guys that have seen some time.
"Baker and Rollins both present problems. They're big and fast, I've seen them catching a lot of balls in practice. Owens can flex out and he presents a size problem for people."
Alex Atwood and C.J. Sharp are two other receiving options for the Wildcats this season.
The offensive line can count just one returning starter -- outside of Owens at tight end -- in Josh Mallicoat. Tallent said the rising junior has helped to stabilize that unit already.
"He's put in a lot of good, quality time and has done a real nice job with that group," Tallent said.
Joining Mallicoat on the line could be Jeff Brinson, Connor McMackin, Zach Moon and Cody Smith.
Mallicoat and McMackin will shift across the line to fill one-half of Warren County's front four on defense, with Blake Steele and Josh Newman also expected to see plenty of time there.
"Our front four is going to feature a lot of different kids that are going to be in there," Tallent said. "We're going to be rotating them through."
The Wildcats must find an entirely new set of starting linebackers. Zach Moon did see significant time there last year, and Owens will be shifting back to his customary role as an inside backer after starting late in the season at outside linebacker. Baker, Butler, Zach Waller and Deal are also expected to see time at linebacker.
The secondary is another projected strength for Warren County, with Yates returning as a starter at cornerback and Rollins doing the same as a safety. Butler could also see time in the secondary.
"We feel like we've got some solid kids back there, and those are some kids that have seen some time," Tallent said. "So we feel actually that our secondary and our linebackers are really going to be a strength. And we've seen a lot of quick improvement from some of our young offensive and defensive linemen."
Tallent is looking forward to the Wildcats' new-look schedule, featuring a slate of Bull Run opponents which more closely mirrors Warren County's student population size.
"It really sets in some rivalries that not only have we cultivated over the last few years, but that I felt should have been in place the whole time," Tallent said. "Strasburg's just around the corner -- that to me is a natural geographic rival. Coach Roller's got a great program. Coach Yew, the same thing -- Central's really riding high right now. That's a school that's 30 miles away that we have some history of playing. Same thing with Clarke, we're counties that touch. To me, it makes sense to play them."
There is a potential drawback to that Bull Run membership -- with so many conference games, the Wildcats could only schedule cross-town rival Skyline for the opening game of the season rather than the traditional finale.
To Tallent, when the two schools meet just doesn't matter.
"We're always going to play them," Tallent said. "It doesn't matter if you play them first, the middle or last. It's going to be a rivalry game. It's a cross-town thing."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>