The field was newly lined, the helmets bore nary a scratch and various cones and pads were strategically placed for the players to run through or around. The only thing missing from Bruton High's first football practice was, well, a football.

As crucial as the spherical-shaped pigskin is to America's most popular sport, it is not always the primary focus of an opening day high school practice. Much more of an emphasis than ball-handling around the Peninsula on Thursday were "fundamentals."

So, whether new Bruton coach Reggie Jones was emphasizing the correct defensive stance, Woodside veteran Danny Dodson was preaching "stance, alignment and pursuit," or Thad Wheeler was coaching the importance of an explosive first step during his first practice at Warhill, the little things were big as teams began preparation for their late-August openers.

"You don't need a football to work on defense," Jones said. "Defense is going to be the foundation of our program.

"The keys to that are alignment, knowing your responsibility and the other guy's responsibility and movement to the football."

To teach the Panthers that, Jones introduced the program's new defensive coordinator, Terrence Johnson. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Johnson was defensive coordinator on the 2009 Bruton team that reached the Group AA Division 3 state championship game.

Johnson went on to become the head coach at Rappahannock County, a tiny Group A (now Division 1) school. He was able to move back into coaching and physical education teaching positions at Bruton because former head coach Kyle Neve (1993-2007) moved to rival Lafayette to teach and become an assistant coach.

"When Coach Neve left, I had an 'aha moment' and got the ball rolling and got him in here," Jones said. "I wouldn't have it any other way than to have Terrence as our defensive coordinator."

About 30 players dressed for Bruton's practice Thursday, reminiscent of when Jones and Johnson were assistants of the 2009 "Dirty 30." Most of the players on that team saw some playing time, and Jones indicated Thursday that he'll count on most of the players who were at his first practice.

"We've got 30 and that's all we need," Jones said as his players lined up for practice-ending sprints. "You're one play from getting on the field.

"So, while the first team is out there doing repetitions and you're standing around playing around and not paying attention — then your name gets called and your number gets called and you're not ready — it's your fault. So pay attention."

Wheeler's message was to pay attention to detail. So he emphasized strength, explosiveness and correct movement from his players as they learned several plays on Thursday.

"We want them all to think of themselves as track sprinters in a different stance," said Wheeler, who assisted his father, legendary coach Paul Wheeler, at Williamsburg rival Lafayette. "We want to try to get them to understand that the first step is going to take us where we're going.

"We're working to get them to push out of their stance, because if we can't do that, we can't do much else. The kids got off to a good start, but they've got a lot to learn."

Woodside returns starters at 13 positions, so Dodson's group has less to learn than the players at Bruton and Warhill. Still, he stressed essentially the same things as Jones and Wheeler.

Because the Virginia High School League allows year-round practice now, coaches say their players generally come in better conditioned than in the past. Dodson was comfortable enough to have his players work quickly at the first practice.

"We want to see how fast our players can break huddle, get to the ball and get play started correctly," he said. "We want them to do that from the right stance and in the right alignment.

"Pace is an important element of everything we're doing."

NOTES. In addition to Bruton and Warhill, Bay Rivers District schools to open practice on Thursday included Jamestown, Lafayette and Smithfield. York's first practice is Friday.

O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963