Football Preview 2016: Wildcats seeking rebound from last season’s struggles

FRONT ROYAL – Last season was a pretty forgettable one for Warren County High School’s football team.

The Wildcats stumbled to a 2-8 record while struggling on both sides of the ball, and missed out on the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Wide receiver/defensive back Cam Ford said earlier this month that it “brought us down a lot” knowing that they broke that string of playoff appearances last fall, but the senior liked what he saw from his teammates early in camp.

“I see a lot of new faces that are just ready to play,” Ford said. “They look dedicated to football. I think we slacked a little bit last year and we didn’t take it too serous. I think this year’s gonna be a big change.”

The offseason already marked a period of change for Warren County, which must now fill key positions with new faces at quarterback and running back after the graduation of twins Robert and Joseph Rutherford, both two-year starters, as well as spots left by three-year starting lineman Quay Caison and 2015 leading tackler Rhett Tierney.

Wildcats head coach Steven Crist, now in his third year, said junior R.J. Keeney emerged from a preseason competition with sophomores Brodie Cripps and Nate Stoneburger for the open quarterback spot previously filled by Robert Rutherford, the team’s leading passer (1,565 yards, 12 touchdowns, four interceptions) and leading rusher (139 carries, 360 yards, six touchdowns) a year ago.

“He’s a big, strong kid that’s athletic, so he’s got some mobility, he’s got a strong arm,” Crist said. “He doesn’t have varsity experience. He played as the freshmen (football team’s) quarterback when he was in ninth grade. But he’s definitely got some ability. He’s got some good players around him too that will help him.”

At running back, Crist said the Wildcats will take a committee approach to the position, with sophomore Ronnie Dodson and juniors Cody Petitt and Brett Dickerson expected to see carries. Petitt saw action last season when Joseph Rutherford missed extended time with a leg injury.

The team returns two starters along the offensive line in seniors Will Deavers and Jack Kilgallen, and Crist said on Aug. 18 that there was still competition for the other spots.

Keeney will have some experienced targets to throw to in Ford (39 receptions, 551 yards, four touchdowns in 2015) and senior tight end Brendan McMackin (17 catches, 273 yards, four touchdowns), both second team all-Conference 28 selections last fall.

“That’s some big shoes to fill, especially after Robert. I think we’re just gonna have to work harder on what we have to do to give (Keeney) more open space so he can get the ball there safely,” Ford said.

Crist said the Wildcats’ offense, which averaged 16.5 points per game and was shut out three times in 2015, will look similar in scheme to what it has in his first two seasons, although he said he wasn’t particularly pleased with how his team moved the football in its weather-shortened scrimmage against Turner Ashby (Group 4A) on Aug. 12.

“We didn’t move the ball real effectively,” Crist said. “We were close, a couple little things here and there. Some of it was TA – they’re pretty good – and some of it was stuff that we didn’t do correctly. In that case we got to evaluate it and make improvements and stuff like that.”

Defensively the Wildcats return some experience up front with McMackin (team-high four sacks last season), Deavers (32 tackles) and Kilgallen. Crist said senior Paul Bragg, a Strasburg transfer, will also play along the defensive line.

Crist said he expects senior Ryan Guerrero and junior Darren Frantz to start at linebacker, while Ford will be one of the Wildcats’ starting cornerbacks.

Last season, Warren County allowed 35.5 points per game.

“Our defense is just hungry and ready, and hungry to play and hungry to hit,” Ford said. “We just want that physicality again. We’ve been waiting for it all summer and now it’s finally here.”

Junior Stuart Ashley returns to handle the kicking for the Wildcats after being named second team all-conference in 2015.

Warren County opens its 2016 season at 1 p.m. Saturday with a road game at Handley.

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