2015 Football: Hawks seeking new leaders after large roster turnover

Skyline Coach Heath Gilbert speaks to his team during a contest against Millbrook last year in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily file

FRONT ROYAL – Following the graduation of 19 seniors from last season’s roster, there’s no shortage of obstacles facing Skyline High School’s football team in 2015.

There is the matter of replacing the production lost from a total of eight players who earned All-Northwestern District/All-Conference 28 recognition. There is the challenge of filling those voids with young, inexperienced players who are often untested at the varsity level, and maintaining the chemistry the Hawks built up last season after the extreme roster turnover.

And perhaps most importantly for Skyline, it’s seeking leaders. There are some players who have already seized that important role, head coach Heath Gilbert said on Aug. 17, but the Hawks need more.

“We had some excellent emotional leaders last year,” said Gilbert, who led the Hawks to a Region 3A East playoff appearance in 2014. “That’s a big part of playing football, especially if you are overmatched sometimes with numbers or maybe size – emotion and desire and passion in your heart can make up for a lot of that stuff. … This team is trying to get there and they’re learning to get there. It’s taking a little bit of time and we’re taking steps every day.”

The Hawks expected growing pains early in practice, and they experienced them – “We have a lot to learn,” senior Joey Norman admitted midway through fall camp – but Skyline senior lineman Joe Pingley said the approach has been simple.

“We come out here to work every day,” Pingley said. “Got to have the focus and mentality to work hard and get some games won, get to the playoffs. The key right now is to do what we can.”

The Hawks entered fall camp in better shape on the offensive side, although Skyline will be breaking in a new quarterback after Corban Ruch – last season’s Conference 28 Offensive Player of the Year – transferred to nearby Randolph-Macon Academy.

Senior Dylan Hamman, who served as Ruch’s backup last year, will take the reins of the Hawks’ multiple-I offense this fall.

“His preparation last season was excellent,” Gilbert said of Hamman. “He really didn’t just pout about it. He put himself in a good position to be successful this year.”

Hamman will have some experience around him. Senior Jay Roy (28 catches, 254 yards, two touchdowns in 2014) and junior Aaron Tasker (26 catches, 268 yards) return at receiver this fall, and Skyline’s biggest strength overall could be its offensive line.

The Hawks, who averaged an area-best 330 yards per game last year, return four starters up front in Pingley and Justin Hayes – two All-Northwestern District/All-Conference 28 honorees – and Zack Atkins and Austin Scott, four seniors who average 242.5 pounds. Max Meador, a 6-foot-4, 255 pound junior, completes an offensive line that Gilbert said he will be “banking on” this fall.

Gilbert said junior Brad Halsey, a transfer from 6A Westfield High School, has emerged as Skyline’s top running back and is a “lightning in a bottle-type kid,” while seniors Ryan Abel and Antwan Swain will work at tight end.

Defensively, Roy, a cornerback, is the lone regular starter returning from a unit that limited opponents to 184.2 yards per game in 2014, and the Hawks will need players to step up after losing the top six tacklers to graduation.

Gilbert said Swain – who returned to the football program after taking last season off – and Atkins were bright spots on the defensive line midway through camp, and a handful of players will compete for playing time up front with the emphasis on building depth.

“My whole goal is hopefully to have five (offensive) linemen and four defensive linemen because we like to do a couple things with tempo and we’re not going to be able to do that if we’ve got guys going both ways,” Gilbert said. “We wanted to do it last year but just couldn’t because the guys were two-way players.”

Norman (39 tackles in 2014) and fellow senior Keith Sanker are expected to start at inside linebacker, Gilbert said, while the outside linebacker spots were still up for grabs entering Skyline’s final preseason scrimmage on Aug. 20 with Jacob Carson, Tucker Fortney and Daniel Guizar in the mix.

In the secondary, Roy (two interceptions in 2014) and Tasker will man the cornerback spots, while senior Brandon Wells will play safety along with Steven Timbers. Senior Marcus Burke will also be in the mix at defensive back, Gilbert said.

“We feel good about our secondary guys having experience and being back there,” Gilbert said.

Senior A.J. Dueweke will retain his kicking duties and will handle the punting as well this season, Gilbert said.

Skyline, which lost to Hopewell in the first round of the playoffs last year, opens its 2015 season with a road contest at Central at 7:30 p.m. today.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com