By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Steve Crist faces quite a challenge in his first year as the head football coach at Warren County High School.
The transition into his new role was easy enough -- Crist was an offensive assistant at Warren County for six seasons from 2007 to 2012 under former head coach Tony Tallent before serving as Manassas Park's head coach last year. But Crist now has the tall task of finding some way to replace the production of 18 graduated seniors that helped lead the Wildcats to the second round of the Region 3A East playoffs last season.
"It's always a challenge even with experience coming back for a new year because everybody changes," Crist said. "We've got some experience coming back and we've got some inexperience, too. But they're working hard to improve every day. There's a lot of yards and catches to replace, but I'm sure somebody will step up and fill those roles."
Warren County has holes to fill all over the field on both offense and defense. Crist said the offensive line is the team's strongest position group in terms of returning experience, with seniors Josh Mallicoat -- a first-team all-Conference 28 pick last season -- Connor McMackin and Jeff Brinson returning after starting for the Wildcats last year.
The rest of Warren County's offense and defense will need to be almost completely retooled. First team all-conference picks Demetrus Yates (RB/DB), Kristian Deal (RB/LB), Jontae Rollins (WR/DB), Josh Newman (RB/DL) and Blake Steele (WR/DE) are all gone, as is quarterback Austen Butler and receiver Casey Stewart, the Wildcats' leading pass catcher in 2013.
Butler passed for over 1,000 yards last season, and the combination of Yates, Newman, Deal and Butler accounted for 2,410 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground in 2013.
In terms of offensive production, current senior wide receiver Eric Baker is the lone returnee with significant output at the varsity level. He caught 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown last season.
"I definitely lost some friends from last year. But we've got people who can step up," Baker said. "We've just got to stay focused and execute our assignments -- we've really got to execute our assignments this year. We've got to do the best we can."
Crist had yet to decide on a starting quarterback after the first week of practice, though he said the competition was between junior Robert Rutherford and sophomore Cameron Ford.
Rutherford was the backup quarterback last season and saw action when Butler went down with an injury. He completed 8 of 10 passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Ford is in his first year at the varsity level.
"The sooner the better, but we're not going to rush it," Crist said of a timetable for naming a starting quarterback. "... I'm going to let it play out. I'm going to give them a chance to play in some scrimmages to get a true evaluation."
Crist insisted during the early stages of practice that no starting assignments had been awarded and that he was treating everything as an open competition, not surprising given the amount of player turnover Warren County has experienced over the last two years.
Crist said there were about eight players in the mix at running back following the first week of practice, including juniors Joseph Rutherford and Brian Croson and seniors Richie Yatsko and T.J. Ferguson. Baker and senior Tristan Ward are a few options at receiver, among others, Crist said.
Defensively, senior middle linebacker Zach Moon (82 total tackles in 2013) is the leading returning tackler for the Wildcats, who will have to fill the gaps that had been previously filled by Deal (team-high 105 tackles), Newman (62 tackles, 9 ½ sacks) and Steele (40 tackles, 10 ½ sacks).
McMackin, Brinson, Cody Vaughn and Quay Caison are all in the mix along the defensive line, Crist said, and Moon, Yatsko, Croson and Baker are all candidates at the linebacker positions in Warren County's 4-4 defense. Crist said Ward and Joseph Rutherford could be in the secondary this fall.
Crist said Aaron Deavers, Baker and Stuart Ashley are candidates to take over the kicking responsibilities that had been previously held down by an all-region performer in Steele.
Warren County has made the playoffs in each of the past four seasons and Crist said the goal is to continue that winning tradition this season, though the Wildcats' coaching staff hasn't laid forth a distinct set of expectations.
"We want to win as many games as possible. That's always the goal," Crist said. "We just talk about getting better every day. If we get better every day then we'll have a chance to reach some of those individual and team goals that we all want."
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD