2015 Football: Judges confident despite plenty of holes to fill in 2015

Sherando's kick off team prepares for the kick during a recent practice. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER – The holes are pretty glaring for Handley’s football team heading into the 2015 season.

Gone is four-year starting quarterback Will Dearing, who joined the University of Richmond as a preferred walk-on this fall. Gone are Dontae Mauck and Justin Washington, who earned full scholarships to Virginia Military Institute and University of Delaware, respectively. Gone is D.J. Frisby, who walked on at Marshall University.

In all, the Judges lost 16 seniors from a year ago to graduation, including eight who earned All-Northwestern District/All-Conference 23 accolades.

“First of all, you can’t replace some of those kids,” longtime Handley coach Tony Rayburn said. “But we’re going into it and we’re setting goals and the goals are simple. They’re to get better every day and be the most we can, and if we can take care of those I think we have some players on the team that can give us a chance to compete.”

Despite the talent, Handley mustered only four wins last season and missed the playoffs following an overtime loss to James Wood in the regular-season finale, the Judges’ first loss to their city rival since 2007. But for those players who return from 2014, last season’s struggles — and the subsequent roster turnover — has provided them with an extra spark.

“We were 4-6 last year and the guys that played last year were quite disappointed in that,” Rayburn said. “… I think expectations are pretty low for us, and they want to come out and exceed expectations. So they have confidence.”

Offensively, Handley returns only two starters — tight end Dolan Delaney and offensive lineman Tommy Shea-Roop – and will feature a new quarterback for the first time in four seasons as senior Matt Elliott steps into that role.

To compensate for the inexperience at quarterback — as well as wide receiver, where senior Marcus Tactikos is the leading receiver returning after catching two passes for 31 yards in 2014 — Rayburn said the Judges will rely heavily on the running game this season and will use more two-back formations.

Seniors Anthony Smith and Jacob Shade, who both have prior varsity experience – albeit at linebacker – separated themselves early in camp from a running back group that consisted of about five or six players, Rayburn said, and the coach added that he expects to be able to establish a running game behind an inexperienced but athletic offensive line anchored by Shea-Roop and fellow seniors Daniel Johnson and Luke Grzywacz.

“We’re going to try to fit our offense to our quarterbacks and what they can or can’t do,” Rayburn said. “For a young quarterback, you just can’t sit and drop back in the pocket and throw it. We’ll do a little bit of quick gain. We’ll do a lot of spread-out, play-action when we throw to try to help our quarterback. And so far Matt Elliott, he’s a kid who’s been with the program three years and he hasn’t played a whole lot but he’s a great kid. He’s got some work to do in a lot of areas but again we’re starting to see a little bit of progress as we go through and he’s an excellent leader.”

Defensively, Handley returns six players with starting experience, including Delaney, who led the team with 132 tackles and tied for the team lead with six sacks.

Shea-Roop will retain his spot along the defensive line, while Tactikos will start at safety and lead a secondary filled with new faces. Most of the Judges’ experience returns at linebacker, where Delaney, Smith (55 tackles), Shade and junior Jimmy Vitola have all seen significant action.

“I think we have a chance to be pretty solid up front,” Rayburn said. “Our secondary is young but we’re hoping that the athletes are there, but they’re just going to have to learn as they go. We definitely can’t put them on an island too much. While they develop we need to put some pressure on the quarterback.”

Junior Aidan Marshall will assume the team’s kicking responsibilities after his older brother, Nick, held the role for the last three years before graduating last spring.

Handley has 13 seniors on this season’s roster, and Rayburn said those seniors are “one of the best groups of leadership-type guys that we’ve had in a while.”

Rayburn enters his 14th season as Handley’s head coach three wins shy of 100 for his career as the Judges open the season tonight at Warren County.

“We have team guys who want to go out and do whatever it takes to win for the team,” Rayburn said. “And sometimes teams like that go out and have a chance to exceed expectations.”

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