By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- The coaching never stops for Chris Gilliland.
The fifth-year head coach at Massanutten Military Academy has been busy stitching together a team, player by player, as they arrive on campus from all over the world. That's normal. What has been different, compared to last season, is what Gilliland has had to teach to get his team ready for the season.
"We've got more experience coming back," Gilliland said. "There's only a couple kids out there who haven't ever set foot on a football field. Last year, basically my entire offensive line had never taken a snap. Derik [Duklis] was playing quarterback when he'd always played wide receiver, a couple linebackers had never seen the field before.
"Most of these kids have actually played football, organized, for a couple years. We don't have any freshmen, we don't have any eighth-graders. They're all sophomores, juniors and seniors."
That's good news for the Colonels, who struggled to a winless campaign last season. The experience factor can go a long way toward helping MMA improve and diversify on offense this season, which is exactly what Gilliland plans to do.
"This year we're going to have a lot of people coming back from last year," MMA rising senior Joshua Holt said. "We're going to have a more experienced offensive line. Last year with our guys, it was mainly their first year playing football. This year we're more experienced -- most of the team is juniors and seniors."
The Colonels plan to feature a new look -- sort of, anyway -- on offense. After attacking opponents exclusively out of the spread the past few seasons, MMA is going for more of a hybrid approach that puts more emphasis on balance.
"We're doing a lot of different things," Gilliland said. "We're kind of meshing what we did my first year here with the triple option, with the spread stuff we've done the past few years. We're in the pistol some, get in the gun, under center, we'll go two- and three-wide sets. We'll put a fullback in the backfield once we get our linemen in."
Holt, a returning starter in the backfield, should see plenty of carries. Gilliland said he'd also like to move Tyler Draddy to the backfield if the anticipated offensive line depth materializes, and he has other options as well.
"We'll try to run it 50 to 60 percent of the time, and hopefully pass it the rest of the time," Gilliland said. "In years past I've tried to throw it a little bit more than run it because we had the athletes to do it. This year we're going to flip it a little bit and be more balanced, try to run the ball and control the clock some."
Duklis transferred, leaving newcomer Deontae Spence as the likely choice at quarterback. Spence, who had previously attended MMA and transferred back, was able to get a head start by attending summer school and was among the first to arrive for preaseason practice.
John Love gained starting experience late in the season at wide receiver, and Gilliland also expected multi-talented wide receiver/running back Damoni Gunter to return.
"Offensively, we'll put him at wide receiver in the slot, may put him in the backfield a little bit at running back," Gilliland said. He's kind of in the same mold as Holt, where we can put him at different positions wherever we need him."
The offensive line could be a real strong point for MMA. Draddy, Beryl Busayija, Jean-Marc Hollo and Jean-Luc Hollo all saw time with the starting unit last year, and Gilliland is excited about transfers Chase Halliburton and Jake Long.
The Colonels will again work out of a 4-3 base defense, with many of those same linemen forming the defensive front. Gunter is expected to reprise his role as a speed-rushing defensive end.
Other starters back from last year include Holt at strong safety, Draddy is back at middle linebacker, John Love at cornerback and Weiouqing Chen can float between linebacker and safety.
Beyond that group, MMA will have some holes to fill.
"We've got a couple kids that I'm looking forward to seeing," Gilliland said. "Chase Halliburton is one. He's playing center for us this year, playing a little bit of defensive tackle. I think he's going to be a contributor. Jovan Holmes, good kid, a junior, he's going to be playing free safety for us. He's replacing Houston, which is kind of a tall task. He's done well so far in camp. He's played before, but not as much as he's going to play so we'll see what happens when things start to kind of fly by him.
"Jake Long is another one; he's aggressive, a good kid, takes coaching well, fast, and he's not afraid."
The Colonels will play a 10-game schedule this season after only getting to play eight last year. That's 10 chances to improve on last year's mark, and Gilliland thinks this year's group already has a solid foundation to start.
"It's good that I'm not going to have to teach the fundamental stuff to a lot of these kids," Gilliland said. "They already have it, which is a good thing."
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com