Skyline intent on avoiding breakdown this season

By Brad Fauber

FRONT ROYAL — Members of Skyline’s football team admit that the team fell apart down the stretch last season, as a combination of factors led to the Hawks losing six of their final seven games.

Hawks head coach Heath Gilbert wants to make sure that a similar breakdown doesn’t happen again this season. From the start of Skyline’s offseason workouts, Gilbert went out of his way to make sure the Hawks were working as a cohesive unit.

That philosophy has spilled over into preseason practice, Gilbert said, and the results have been encouraging.

“The coaching staff and I, we’ve done a great job, I think, of making sure we’re driving that point home,” Gilbert said. “We’re making sure they’re talking to each other more than they’ve done before, making sure they’re touching each other more than they’ve done before — giving a hug or giving a high five. Dapping it up. All that stuff is just over-emphasized every day.”

Gilbert said he has spurred his players to encourage each other even during something as simple as conditioning drills, and he added that he’s noticed a positive change in the team’s mindset. That improved mentality is even further strengthened by the program’s optimism leading into the 2014 season.

Skyline went 4-7 last season (0-4 in the Northwestern District) and was trounced by Kettle Run, 35-7, in the first round of the Region 3A East playoffs, but the Hawks return nine starters on offense and defense this fall.

The Hawks hope that added year of experience will lead to improvement this season, and Gilbert said the coaching staff saw the benefits even before Skyline stepped on the practice field for the first official day of practice at the beginning of August.

“The last offseason practice right before camp … it was so much fun. The kids were just like firing off of what they supposed to do. It was pretty impressive,” Gilbert said. “We were pretty proud as a staff to see the coaches and our kids execute at that level before the season even started. Definitely having those guys back and understanding what our expectation is and how we’re supposed to practice is really important.”

Offensively, aside from the loss of first team all-Conference 28 selections Travis Siever (OL/DL) and Marcus Turner (WR/DB), the Hawks return most of their key components, a fact that Gilbert said will allow Skyline to “branch out more.”

Junior quarterback Corban Ruch (43 for 92, 639 yards, five touchdowns, six interceptions) is back to captain Skyline’s offense, and dynamic senior running back Jerrius Baltimore (1,014 rush yards, six TDs) will once again spearhead the Hawks’ rushing attack.

The loss of Turner on the outside is a big one for Skyline, but Gilbert was confident that senior Jamal Parker can successfully fill that void in the passing attack alongside Jay Roy, Josh Smeltzer and Aaron Tasker. Gilbert also had plenty of good things to say about senior Gerren Butler, who will be working as a tight end this fall.

The offensive line also remains largely intact, as five returnees — Joe Pingley, Ronnie Clifton, Zach Atkins, Justin Hayes and Jacob Short — all started at least one game last season.

“The offensive line has definitely been a bright spot,” Gilbert said. “… We’re not always going to have this with the enrollment size that we have, but we’re bigger. We’re bigger across the board, definitely.”

Defensively, the Hawks will look to improve on last season’s performance, in which Skyline allowed 32.3 points per game.

Gilbert said the biggest focus for Skyline’s defensive unit so far has been finding ways to force opponents into more mistakes.

“Our No. 1 goal is to improve on 11 turnovers — that’s what we forced last year,” Gilbert said. “That’s one per game and three of them were against a team that really struggled. That’s definitely an important emphasis for us to be better and hopefully with nine starters [back] we’re going to do that.”

Senior linebacker Darryl Jordan — the Hawks’ leading tackler (82 total) in 2013 — returns as the leader of Skyline’s defense, and Gilbert called Jordan the “London Fletcher” of Skyline’s defense, referring to the former Washington Redskins linebacker.

Last season’s sack leader, Clifton (3.5 sacks), returns to lead a defensive line that also includes Pingley, Butler and Brandon Walters. Linebacker Bradley Carson (57 tackles last season) also returns, as does Hunter Partlowe to lead a secondary that includes Parker, Roy and Smeltzer.

Gilbert said Skyline will be utilizing a 4-2-5 defense — a scheme utilized by Texas Christian University to counteract spread offenses — this fall after trying to implement it late last season.

“We’re following the TCU model, so we’re doing some different things which is going to help with the more and more spread stuff that you see every year,” Gilbert said. “You’ve got to be ready for it. You’ve got to have answers for things and the old school way that we played defense isn’t up to date, is not effective enough.”