Eagles retool backfield for another run at state playoffs

By Jeff Nations

BERRYVILLE — The Clarke County High School football team broke new ground in the program’s history last season, advancing further into the postseason than any previous Eagles squad before eventually falling in the Group 2A state quarterfinals.

Clarke County broke that new ground by simply dominating the ground out of its single-wing offense, churning up massive amounts of yardage with a slew of dangerous backs.

Times change, perhaps — Clarke County lost much of that offensive production to graduation, including last season’s leading rusher Josh Dulaney (1,620 rushing yards, 24 touchdowns) and Kasey Lake (755 rushing yards, 10 TDs). The Eagles will need some new faces to step into big-time roles if they hope to come close to matching or even exceeding last year’s potent attack (359.9 yards per game) that averaged 35.6 points an outing.

“I think we still have the capability of establishing a running game,” Clarke County coach Chris Parker said. “How much we throw, we don’t have a set amount. Some games it might be a lot, some games if we really have the train moving as far as our running we’re just going to keep moving on and then sprinkle passes in with it. We have a pretty good play-action package with it.”

The Eagles also have a good quarterback to lean on again this season. Rising senior Sean McDonald is pegged to start for this third straight season, and the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder is equally adept at running out of the Eagles’ single-wing attack or throwing it downfield. Last season, McDonald rushed for 761 yards and 11 touchdowns, and passed for 773 yards and seven touchdowns.

“We’re putting in a lot of new stuff, some single-back things and some gun pro, things like that,” McDonald said. “I think we’ve adapted to it nicely. We definitely have the personnel to do it. Each year comes new challenges as far as who’s going to be doing what, but I think we filled those spots nicely so we’ll have a more dynamic offense this year.”

McDonald could well lead Clarke County in rushing this season, but the Eagles are hoping junior Jordan Turner and sophomore Hunter Rogers (a Millbrook transfer) are ready to help carry that load as running backs. The Eagles are also looking at juniors Matthew Dang and Jaxon Ottobre on the wings.

Clarke’s offensive line looks to be in good shape despite the graduation loss of two-way all-region starting lineman Luke Estep. Seniors Carson Perkins and Logan Withers, and junior Julius Grant all return to form the basis of a solid and experienced line. Sophomore Josh Wallace has looked solid snapping the ball as the team’s new starting center, and Zach Melusen should also step into a starting spot.

“They’re definitely the strongest group we’ve ever had,” Parker said. “They’re exceptionally strong and they’ve really bought into our weight program.”

Senior Vince Zduoba (6-3, 225) offers nice size at tight end, and senior Justin Dulaney (6-3, 195) gives the Eagles another prominent passing target.

“In the single wing, there’s an infinite amount of ways to run plays,” Parker said. “With us, I think the advantage is we’re a strong team, our kids love running the offense and they know it, and when you have to prepare for that we may be the only team on an opposing team’s schedule that runs the single wing.”

Parker is optimistic that this year’s team has a blend of strength and speed, which could more than make up for any size deficits the Eagles, might encounter this season.

“I think that we’re a pretty athletic team,” Parker said. “To be honest with you, I think we have above-average speed. We don’t have the 4.4 guys on the team, but our guys are quick and they’re certainly strong.”

The Eagles return their entire starting defensive line from last season’s 3-4 base, with Grant (defensive tackle), Zduoba (defensive tackle) and Withers (noseguard) all set for another season.

Clarke may be based out of the 3-4, but the Eagles won’t be shy about mixing up coverages and alignments at any point this season.

“The way we have it designed is we’re trying to put the best 11 athletes on the field, that can move and play different spots without having to do as much substitution,” Eagles defensive coordinator Casey Childs said. “We’ve been fortunate over the last seven or eight years to have the kids and the personnel to be able to move around to do things.”

Perkins returns as one starting inside linebacker, with sophomores Hunter Rogers and Brett McDonald also slated to see time. Justin Dulaney is back as an outside starting linebacker. Josh Wallace, Bryan Wallace, Tommy Kenny and Mackie Martin could all see time at the other outside linebacker spot or filling in for Dulaney.

The secondary is also solid, with returning starting cornerbacks Jordan Turner and Matthew Dang, plus experienced safeties Jaxon Ottobre, Dulaney and Sean McDonald.

“Overall, we’re pretty solid,” Childs said. “We’ve got a bunch of hybrid players who can move to different spots.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com