Football camp notebook: Keeney taking the reins of Wildcats’ offense

Warren County head coach Steve Crist huddles with his offensive players during a recent practice. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – It’s been nearly two full years since R.J. Keeney took the snaps for a Warren County High School football team, when he quarterbacked the program’s freshman squad in 2014.

Keeney, now a junior, will reprise that role at the varsity level for Warren County this fall, as he emerged as the favorite from a quarterback battle with sophomores Brodie Cripps and Nate Stoneburger and will start under center for the Wildcats when they open the season Saturday afternoon at Handley.

The junior will make his first official varsity start at quarterback after starting both of Warren County’s preseason scrimmages.

“The first game I was nervous a little bit,” Keeney said Wednesday of the Wildcats’ scrimmage against Turner Ashby on Aug. 12. “The second game I kind of got in a groove and stuff, so I’m feeling pretty good going into the Handley game.”

That’s good news for Warren County, which will look to Keeney to replace the production lost by the graduation of Robert Rutherford, who threw for 2,280 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for 598 yards and eight scores in his two seasons as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback.

Wildcats head coach Steven Crist said he saw “a lot of good things” from his new quarterback in the team’s second scrimmage against Luray last Friday.

“A lot of things still to correct but he was pretty accurate with the ball, he knew where to go with the ball, did a good job of commanding the huddle on offense,” Crist said. “So a lot of positives came out of that scrimmage from him.”

Keeney said the transition back to quarterback (he worked at tight end for the Wildcats last season) wasn’t without its challenges, as he hadn’t done any kind of quarterback-specific work other than tossing around a football with friends on occasion since joining the varsity program last fall.

“I lost my grip on the ball, didn’t know how to grip the ball like coach taught me,” Keeney said. “… And just my form, I lost my form and all that so I had to get that back. That took kind of the whole first week.”

Despite Keeney’s relative inexperience in his new role, Crist said he doesn’t expect the junior to need to be eased into his first varsity start.

“We’re comfortable enough to call what we feel like we need to call,” Crist said. “There’s no kid gloves or anything like that.”

The head coach added that Keeney is comparable to Rutherford in terms of their mobility – Rutherford was the Wildcats’ leading rusher last season – although Keeney, at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, has a bigger build than his predecessor.

“If someone’s coming at me head on I’m big enough where I can take them head on,” Keeney said, “but I’m also agile enough to go different ways and lose them.”

SEEING IMPROVEMENT: Keeney wasn’t alone in gaining some approval from Crist for his performance in last week’s scrimmage against Luray. After expressing his discontent with how the Wildcats performed in their weather-shortened exhibition against Turner Ashby – particularly with the offense’s inability to move the football – Crist said he “definitely saw improvement” from his group last Friday.

“We were able to rip off some big yardage in the run game and in the pass game, and I think we were just more focused and just played better,” Crist said.

“We know we’re heading from a scrimmage into a game and we’re taking a step up taking on Handley, but it was good to see the execution that we saw in that second scrimmage.”

Crist said one of the primary focuses for the Wildcats in their first game week has been to shore up some player responsibilities outside of offense and defense.

“We just try to work on situations and scenarios and make sure everybody understands where they’re supposed to be, what they’re supposed to do on special teams and all that,” he said. “Trying to hit some of those this week in practice and take care of those situational things that we maybe haven’t experienced yet.”

UP FOR GRABS: Even with the season opener approaching, Crist said the coaching staff is still “feeling some things out” as far as who will start against Handley.

“The way we say it, you’re getting evaluated every day, so you’ve gotta perform every day,” Crist said. “You don’t perform in practice, there’s a … possibility that you could lose your spot.”

Crist said last week that the offensive line remained a contested position group with only seniors Will Deavers and Jack Kilgallen, both returning starters, entrenched up front, and he added Wednesday that the team has “guys fighting all over the place.”

“Obviously only 11 guys are gonna be in the first snap of the game but we’ve got position battles at receiver, we rotate at running back, linebacker, defensive back,” Crist said. “Like I said, we’re evaluating every day, so there’s always somebody competing for a position.”

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