Having spent most of his life in the western portion of the commonwealth, Brandon Kelley wasn't so far away that he hadn't heard of the Peninsula District. When one league produces 14 state champions in a 20-year period, its name tends to get out.
So Kelley knew about the tradition of heavyweights Hampton and Phoebus along with annual contenders Bethel and Woodside. And how hard it would be for anyone, especially a team coming off an 0-10 season, to make a dent.
Yet that didn't deter Kelley, a former assistant in the Roanoke area for five years, from going for his first head coaching job at Gloucester High. The Dukes haven't had a winning season since becoming a Group AAA school in 1990, and they've gone 1-9 or worse nine times in the past 12 years.
But Kelley, who will be the district's youngest coach at 28 years old, is as optimistic as he is eager.
Q: It's been nearly four months since you got the job. How is the transition process coming along?
A: It's going real well. We've got a lot of work to do, but I'm excited to be down here. And I'm excited to see the kids working as hard as they are. We're expecting a few good things this year, there's no doubt about it. I know the history hasn't been there, but that's something you have to overcome.
Q: You mention the program's history, which isn't rich. What about this job attracted you?
A: I looked at it as a challenge. When I came down, I fell in love with the area. It's a beautiful place and the kids are great kids. It was just one of those opportunities that was hard to turn down. After coming down here, it was exciting to see how the kids responded. I think that day they announced me, we had 200-plus kids come out to hear me speak to the school, which I thought was phenomenal.
Q: People in Gloucester always say there are 6-foot-3, 245-pound guys walking the hallways who don't play football. How do you reach out to them?
A: Anytime you take over, you obviously want the best group of kids you can get. I've been in the school the past couple of months commuting back and forth between Roanoke and here, and I came down every Wednesday and Thursday. We've had some kids come out who didn't play last year because of grades. They got their GPAs up and they're working hard. The kids who are there are the kids we want. They've busted their tails. They're working hard, man.
We had our first seven-on-seven against West Point (Tuesday), and they were a good look for us. We've got a lot of teaching to do, and the kids have a lot of learning to do. It'll be a brand-new system on offense and a brand-new system on defense.
Q: Speaking of which, what is your offensive and defensive scheme?
A: We're slowly coming along. We're trying to base what we're doing off the personnel we have at the school. I didn't come in saying we're going to spread everybody out — I've been a spread guy in the past. We'll definitely be a gun team, I know that for sure. Once we see the personnel we have, we're putting some stuff together.
Q: Last season, James Scott accounted for 77 percent of Gloucester's total yards. He's back, but is it important to lessen the load on him and get others involved?
A: Oh, absolutely. James is a great athlete and I expect big things out of him this year. He's getting a lot of looks and he's been tearing up some combines recently. He's been working extremely hard, and what'll make James better is that he has a core group of kids working just as hard around him.
We don't want to be one-dimensional where we run him right, we run him left. We want to make sure we have an offense in place that utilizes every person on the field and not just one person. It's a team philosophy we're going on. We want to make it challenging when (opposing coaches) sit down on Sunday to look at film.
Q: You're only 28, which some might see as a disadvantage. Are there advantages?
A: First, it's an honor to be in this district. It's one of the toughest districts in the state of Virginia, and to be able to come out on game night and compete against these veteran coaches is an honor. I've had a lot of people ask me about my age, but age is just a number to me. If anything, I think it'll benefit me because I'm still young and I can relate to the kids. I've got the energy to go lift with the kids, and when we go out on the field I'm not just standing on the sideline. I'm right there in the middle of them.
So my youth doesn't bother me at all. I've been under a lot of veteran coaches, and under each of them I've been able to develop my own style and philosophy.
Q: When you're trying to change a program's direction, how important is changing the mentality?
A: That's one of the biggest things. We talk every day about what it takes to be a winner, and one thing we talk about is the mindset. If you make a bad play, you bounce back and you play another down. We're trying to push each other and get kids out of their comfort zone so that when game day rolls around, we've been through that mental stress beforehand. It's all about staying focused and learning.
We've got a long way to go, but we're slowly getting there. The great thing I saw yesterday was if we got scored on, we were coachable and we were right back on the ball ready to play again. A lot of that comes from not getting down on the kids and showing them you'll coach them instead of being disgusted with them.
Q: Have you been able to meet any of the other coaches in the Peninsula District?
A: I haven't had the opportunity yet. It's something I've wanted to do since I got down here, but honestly I've been spending so much time with our kids, it's hard to branch out. I do have a contact at Bethel. (Assistant coach) Dorsey Hooker actually used to coach and live with one of my high school coaches. I was able to give Dorsey a call and we've talked a couple of times over the phone, but we haven't had a chance to meet yet.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun