By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- The 2013 season turned into a grind for Strasburg as injuries took their toll and the Rams lost six of their final seven games, limping to a 3-7 record and falling short of the Group 2A playoffs.
But this year's Rams are hoping to glean some positives from some of last season's disappointment.
"We've got a lot of guys who got time [last year] because of injuries," Rams senior tight end/defensive end Ryan Smoot said. "I know last year it was a bad thing for us but I think it's going to pay off a little bit this year that we had some guys play some key roles in some big games for us. We didn't win many of them but they were still key games that guys got to play in."
That experience will be as important as ever for Strasburg this season. The Rams have just nine seniors -- two who have rejoined the program for the first time since their eighth-grade seasons -- out of about 40 players on the varsity roster this season, meaning many underclassmen are going to be thrust into important roles.
It will certainly be a challenge for head coach Mark Roller and his staff to groom the Rams' young and unproven players into consistent varsity contributors, but Strasburg's biggest strength this season could reside in the experience that it does have back.
Ryan Smoot, quarterback Mark Smoot, running back/linebacker Colton Funk and offensive/defensive linemen Aaron Lozado and Joe Giallonardo comprise what Roller calls Strasburg's biggest strength this season -- a group of seniors who provide leadership and experience at some key positions on the field for the Rams.
"I think just having those five guys -- Ryan, Mark, Colton, Joe and Aaron -- that have been playing since they were sophomores ... their attitude is going to be something that helps lead these younger guys," Roller said.
Four of those five seniors will be playing both ways for the Rams this fall. Mark Smoot, the only exception, provides some stability at quarterback and has had a year to get comfortable in his role under center for Strasburg.
Last year, Mark Smoot completed 118 of 222 passes for 1,637 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Roller said he expects to be able to throw the ball more this season now that Mark Smoot is confident in his role.
"At the beginning of last year I was rusty," Mark Smoot said. "Those first couple games I was terrible... The later part of last year I had some good games. This year I've got to be solid the whole year. Just having that year, the game is slower. The beginning of last year those first three games, the game was just fast."
Ryan Smoot (22 catches, 482 yards, seven touchdowns in 2013) became the go-to passing target at tight end last season after Jonathan Kloosterman -- a James Madison University walk-on this fall -- went down with an injury during the first half of the season and should reprise that role this year, and Funk (169 carries, 874 yards, four touchdowns last year) provides a veteran presence in the backfield. But Mark Smoot also will be working with some uncertainty around him on offense as the Rams have to rebuild their offensive line around Lozado and Giallonardo.
The receiving corps will also feature plenty of new faces, although the Rams have received some new additions to the program that should bring speed and athleticism to the passing game. Seniors Cody Darr and Noah St. Clair and juniors Nate Butler and Trevin Howard -- all first-year varsity football players -- are in the mix at wide receiver alongside returning juniors Tyrik "Papoose" Steed and Austin Schlentner.
Roller said he was particularly impressed with the speed of Darr, Howard and St. Clair during a pursuit drill early in fall practice, and he added that Butler quickly grasped the concepts thrown at him during the first week of drills.
"I look for him to play a lot, probably on both sides of the ball just because he's so skilled," Roller said of Butler.
Defensively, Strasburg returns four of its top five leading tacklers from last season, including Ryan Smoot (team-high 90 tackles in 2013), Funk (70 tackles) and linebackers Justin Carr (52 tackles) and Zach McDonald (45 tackles).
The secondary will feature inexperienced talent across the board, with Strasburg's receivers also battling for spots in a wide-open competition in the defensive backfield.
Much of Strasburg's success will depend on how quickly the Rams' inexperienced players can get comfortable in their increased roles.
"They're young, they're raw -- you can see that right now. But they're athletic," Ryan Smoot said of Strasburg's young talent. "They've played some other sports, so you know they have some ball skills and stuff like that. We hope that they can contribute a little bit."
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD