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Skyline’s Darion Santucci runs through a kickoff drill with his teammates during a recent practice. The senior is the top returning running back for the Hawks.

FRONT ROYAL – Skyline has a lot of weapons on offense, but head football coach Heath Gilbert said it wasn’t the quarterback or the wide receivers who were the most valuable to his squad on offense last year – it was fullback Darion Santucci.

“I went into the all-district meeting and I was like ‘you guys aren’t going to believe this, but the most important guy for us on our offense is our fullback,’” Gilbert said of Santucci. “They were like ‘yeah.’ They agreed, they knew. Him establishing the inside run and then everything comes off of that. ...He’s 240 pounds. He’s a monster. He can run like a running back. So being able to establish that tightness inside was so big for us.”

Santucci’s ability to run inside helps set up everything else Skyline does on offense.

Santucci, a senior, said that for most of his younger days he was an offensive lineman. He said he appreciates what the offensive line does and feels like the experience he had playing on the offensive line helps him at fullback.

“That game’s dirt and it’s a battle on the ground,” Santucci said. “Being a running back or linebacker you have a second to see what’s going on, but right there as soon as the ball’s hiked, your hands on someone – it’s just straight grit.”

Santucci said that it didn’t take much of an adjustment for him to switch to fullback when he started playing for Skyline. He said he enjoys playing the fullback position.

“I enjoy just being on the field,” Santucci said. “But being that fullback and just getting that block for that tailback and him running or helping that line out I’m always feeling good to help that person. If it’s helping that tailback, helping the quarterback, helping the line. If it’s helping someone it’s amazing to just be a part of the offense wherever I am needed.”

Gilbert said that they knew he was going to be special when they saw him as an eighth-grader.

“From early on as an eighth-grader, he came in the weight room and squatted 300 pounds, perfect technique,” Gilbert said. “So we knew we had something from an early age. He was so good that year. He did so many different positions. I think he played running back. He played offensive line, he played center. He might have been quarterback at one point as an eighth-grader, which is crazy. We used him all over the place and as he just grew and developed, it became obvious what we wanted to do and how important he was going to be.”

Santucci said that he learned a lot during his sophomore year, his first full-time year on varsity. He said he learned a lot by watching running backs and Skyline graduates Quentin Diggs and Tucker Fortney.

“That was probably the turning point into when I really realized how varsity was going to be,” Santucci said. “(Quentin) Diggs and Tucker (Fortney) and all of them. Those were just hard-hitting kids and I was like I want to hit harder than them. I was like this is how they are. I want to be better than that, hit harder than that.”

Last season, Santucci moved to the starting fullback spot and made the most of it. He led the team with 676 yards rushing and six touchdowns.

“It was all credit to the line, really,” Santucci said. “They blocked amazingly every game. And I just played off of them, fed off of their energy. I made what I had to but really respect to the line, quarterback, coach calling. That’s really all I did. Listen to (Skyline assistant coach Steve) Haines – he’s the one that kept me in check. Then coach Gilbert’s play calling was just all good from there.”

Santucci also plays on defense and has played multiple positions for the Hawks. He said he loves to play at defensive end the most and coming up and making a big play.

Last season, he had 24 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

Not only is Santucci valuable on offense and defense, but he said his favorite memory from last season happened on special teams in the first round of regionals against William Monroe.

“Against William Monroe, (Skyline 2020 graduate) Michael Davis blocked it and I picked it up and scored,” Santucci said. “It just felt amazing to feel that team, to just all snap together at once, and get that special team’s defensive score.”

Santucci said it was tough not having football in the fall and no one was really sure if they would have a season at all. He said that even though it feels a little different playing in February, it feels good just to be back playing the game he loves.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Just being as a team and just having the coaches, the environment, it just feels amazing to have that football feel back.”

Last year, the Hawks went 6-6 and advanced all the way to the Region 3B semifinals. They have most of their team back from last year and high hopes for the upcoming season.

However, junior quarterback Blake Appleton tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the offseason and will not play this season. The Hawks will likely have to rely more on their running game and Santucci this season, and he said he’s OK with that.

“Blake being out it kind of drags us a little bit, because he was a key part of it,” Santucci said. “But it’s pretty fun to know that we’re going to be running more. Being that we’re short some spots, we just change it up, switch how we play. But we still have me, we still have other running backs Logan (Maiatico) and all them to run. So it won’t be directly on me. I see it as a team. So it feels amazing to know that we’re going to be a running team, considering how we’ve been in past years – more pass. So being that we’re going to be based on a run scheme, it’s going to be so much better, because we still have our line. I believe we’ll be good.”

Gilbert said that Santucci is a great leader as well for the younger players.

“We’re big on what we call brotherhood, which is putting your arm around those young guys and helping them learn and develop,” Gilbert said. “He’s tremendous at that. In the weight room when we’re in pods because of COVID, we had four different groups. He ended up being in a group where it was all young kids in the group with him. And he was so good with those guys and setting the tone and teaching them how to work. And not getting frustrated because he didn’t have a ton of guys in there that could push him weight-wise, but he was tremendous.”

The Hawks start their season on Feb. 27 at home with George Mason. Due to the Virginia High School League’s condensed Championship+1 model, teams will only play six games in the regular season.

Santucci said he thinks the Hawks can have a great season, even if it’s a little shorter.

“I feel like we can go for it all, honestly,” Santucci said. “If we can just fix the little kinks we have here and there, we can go for it all. I believe that. Hopefully the team believes it, all of us. Coach believes it. I believe it. We just got to work out our kinks.”

– Contact Tommy Keeler Jr. at tkeeler@nvdaily.com