If summer practice turnouts are any indication, football is going through a healthy change in Howard County. Several schools, namely Mount Hebron, Atholton and Glenelg, are reporting record or near-record attendance at practice this year.
Then again, some things never change. Wilde Lake, the smallest school in the county, the defending county and Class 1A state champion, remains the team to beat this fall.
Who will offer the best challenge to the Wildecats? Oakland Mills usually fills that role, but the Scorpions are fielding one of their more inexperienced teams in years. Howard looks like the only team that can approach the Wildecats in terms of speed and skill, but the Lions are still trying to give seventh-year coach John Quinn his first winning season. Hammond is hoping to parley its massive size on the line into a winning season.
The rest of the county is in various rebuilding stages. Atholton lost nearly all of its offensive weapons to graduation. Centennial is committed to a youth movement that doesn't figure to make them contenders this year. And Glenelg and Mount Hebron are still trying to achieve respectability.
Here is a look at each team:
The Raiders came into last season determined to try something new -- the run-and-shoot offense -- to energize a stagnating program. The result was an interesting 6-4 season in which Atholton scored 20 points a game and produced three All-County players on offense. Now, Atholton must start over, since most of its skill-position players graduated. But coach Don Van Deusen isn't budging on his game plan.
"We're instituting it [the run-and-shoot] with the junior varsity this year," Van Deusen said. "We're committed to it. And we're more ready to go with it this year."
We'll see about that. Except for running back Carlando Love, Atholton will depend on newcomers to spark the offense. Senior Ryan McQueeny figures to win the starting quarterback job, although he is being pushed by junior Jason Albert and sophomore Jamie Burford. And about a dozen candidates are vying for the starting four wide receiver spots.
Van Deusen will depend on Love more. This could be his breakthrough season. Love rushed for 350 yards last year and broke several long runs as a kick returner. His 4.8-second, 40-yard -- speed is perfect for the open field that the run-and-shoot often creates.
The offense will be anchored up front by seniors Richard Blankenship (guard), Kevin Nickey (center) and Jason Walker (guard), all returning starters. Nickey and Walker will also lead Atholton's inexperienced, 4-4 defense at the inside linebacker positions.
Typically, the Raiders are far from the fastest or biggest team in the county. Then again, Van Deusen has battled those obstacles successfully for years.
This is easily the youngest team third-year coach Ed Holshue has had. Only two starters -- quarterback/safety Lawrence Holmes and running back/linebacker Jeremy Odelius -- return. Still, Holshue can barely contain his excitement over what he calls his best group of underclassmen.
"The way things are looking, we'll only start three or four seniors on offense and defense," Holshue said. "The lack of varsity experience is going to create some mistakes. But I like where this team is going. The future is very bright."
Holshue expects defense to be the Eagles' strong suit.
Sophomores Robbie Hauff and Chris Cochran will start at defensive end. Holshue calls them the best ends Centennial has ever had. Then there are sophomores Steve Puckett (guard/defensive tackle) and Kevin O'Connor (linebacker/tight end), who will start both ways. Juniors Jeff Goldeberg and Chong Choe will start at linebacker. Then there's 5-foot-11, 280-pound John O'Connor, a first-time player who will start at offensive tackle initially and probably move on to defensive tackle as well. Junior Walter Song will start at nose guard.
All of the above players have yet to play a varsity down. The offense is more experienced, with senior receivers Nathan Hunt and Bill Chedester complementing Holmes and Odelius. But if the Eagles are going to break loose from consecutive 5-5 seasons, they need the youngsters to lead the way.
All things considered, Ed Ashwell's rookie year as a head coach went fairly well. The Gladiators, who were sinking when Ashwell took over, struggled to a 2-8 record and lost another three games by a combined three touchdowns. The question is, even with seven starters back, where will they go from here?
The Gladiators still lack a player with game-breaking speed, and their offense will be led by unproven Mike Morraye, the 5-9 junior quarterback who started the final three games last year. Their strength lies in numbers. About 40 players came out for the team, a significant increase over last year. That should allow Ashwell to concentrate on developing more one-way players.
"We're much further along than we were at this time last year," Ashwell said. "We're much stronger physically. Ball control will be our key."
Senior Terry O'Brien, a 6-5, 260-pound, two-way lineman, should be a stabilizing force on both sides of the ball. The same goes for senior linebacker Randy Garland, a 5-10, 210-pounder who is starting for the third season. The key for Glenelg will be its most experienced unit, the defensive secondary. Seniors Jason Beall, Jason Caulder and Bobby Owen lead the way.
Offensively, senior running back Paul Brosenne is coming off a decent year, but he needs the interior offensive line of juniors Mark Bolea and guards Toby Heusser and Joe Lupo to perform. They are all first-year players.
The Golden Bears haven't changed much since last year. They still own the biggest line in the county. They still lack speed. They still have an unproven quarterback. They still lack experience in the secondary. There has been one new development, though. Senior Matt Cyran, maybe the team's best player, suffered a season-ending knee injury over the summer.
"I still think we have a chance to make the playoffs and be one of the better teams in the county," said coach Joe Russo. "We're going to be in the hunt."
Hammond again will bank heavily on its line. The offensive front averages nearly 250 pounds. Senior center Brian Triantafillos (5-10, 200), guard Lars Unjhem (6-3, 230) and tackle Danny Boone (6-2, 275) -- all returning starters -- form a right side that should be able to sustain its share of drives on the ground. Senior running back Erin Woodward returns to assume prime duty in Hammond's new, one-back offense.
Russo promises to throw the ball more often, hopefully up to 50 percent of the time. Senior receiver Kelvin Stevens, the Bears' fastest player, is the top target. But if seniors Greg Seward or Rudy Cooper don't step forward at quarterback, the offense will fall back to a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach. That won't work against the league's top defenses.
Boone and Unjhem should hold their own on the interior defensive line, while junior Jimmy Jackson could be a budding star at inside linebacker. But if teams decide to run outside or throw long, Hammond will be in trouble unless its young secondary, led by Stevens, responds.
The Lions appear to be the team most likely to turn the corner this year. At least they should give seventh-year coach John Quinn his first winning season.
They lack size up front, but the Lions have more than enough speed to compensate. Their backfield of senior Kirk Wise and junior Guy Smith combined for over 1,100 yards rushing last year, and scored 14 of Howard's 20 touchdowns.
"We're not going to [over]power you. We're going to finesse you," Quinn said. "If Wise and Smith pick up where they left off last year, we'll be in good shape."
Then again, if senior quarterback Brad Stubbs doesn't improve on last year, the Lions will have problems against their tougher competition. When good defenses stacked the line and dared Howard to throw, Stubbs usually struggled. If Stubbs can get the ball consistently to senior Jamaal Tyler, he of 4.5 speed, the Lions will be in business.
Defensively, Wise (safety) and Smith (middle linebacker) are the keys again. Senior tackles Steve Markley and Kevin Corwin -- each at 6-0, 200 pounds -- must contain opposing blockers to allow the Lions' speedy defenders to do their jobs.
"This is the best crew I've had since I've been here," Quinn said.
Mark Cates takes over a program that bottomed out at 1-9 last year. Cates sees the Vikings as lacking depth experience, but also sees more speed than he can ever recall at Hebron.
"I've got more speed than Hebron has had since I've been here. I've also got more numbers at the skill positions," Cates said. "I've got enough to go with three backfields. But I can't imagine anyone being younger than us."
If anything, the Vikings should have some exciting moments. Senior running back Travis Hairston has 4.6 speed and rushed for over 500 yards last year. Senior Wesley Garrison, who missed most of last season due to injury, is just as quick, as are new wide receivers Masai Demus (senior) and Jermaine Thomas (junior). Senior tight end Mike Fadrowski can also fly. And senior Sammy Kang is solid at fullback.
The question mark is 6-5, 200-pound quarterback Phil Tonkins. After playing sparingly at QB, he'll assume the job full-time.
Cates' other main concern is depth on the lines. He will ask five linemen -- seniors Rich McCampbell, Brad Hudson, Dan Hodges, Steve Cugle and sophomore Mike Tittsworth -- to play both ways.
"I see everyone improving," Cates said. "But I'm just looking to win a second game."
Ken Klock said he has never had a team this young in 12 years at Oakland Mills. Of 26 seniors, 10 have never played football. Only six players returned.
Senior Justin Wethington will get a chance to showcase his talent. Wethington, a 6-2, 230-pound guard/linebacker and All-County selection last year, might be the premier player in the county.
Not that the Scorpions are lost otherwise. Senior Wade McHargue, a 6-7, 215-pounder, should also have a fine season at tackle/defensive end. He could become a devastating pash rusher. And senior center Eric Goodwin and 6-2, 230-pound senior guard Steve Coley should add to a good line that figures to open some holes for running backs Damian Smith and Derrick Brooks.
But Oakland Mills needs junior quarterback Chad Fekel to step up in his first varsity season.
With such a tough September schedule -- North County, Linganore, Thomas Johnson and Wilde Lake await during the first five weeks -- the Scorpions may be in for a rough start. Look for them to rebound and finish well.
The Wildecats lost 12 starters, including seven All-County players, to graduation. Where does that leave them? In position to post their third 13-0 season, another county championship and their third straight state title.
"We think we can win the state championship again," said coachDoug DuVall. "I don't know about 13 in a row again. You've got to be lucky for that to happen. But we can win the last three if we get in [the playoffs]."
The Wildecats are smaller and more inexperienced on the line than they've been in years, but DuVall has a way of bringing out the best in linemen. Watch junior tackle Jay Green (6-2, 195) and sophomore Carlo Gerstenfeld (5-10, 205) blend in with seniors Cedric Benning (6-0, 215) and Ben Miller.
This looks like DuVall's fastest team in years. He compares juniorrunning Mike Green -- up from the junior varsity -- to Raphael Wall. Senior WR/CBs Craig Butler and Reggie Alston can fly. The same goes for senior returning starters Paul Knox (S/FL) and Donald Gibson (LB/FB).
The biggest surprise has been senior Nate Casella -- not at inside LB, where he was expected to have a huge impact, but at QB. Casella came to camp quicker (4.65) and with a newfound throwing arm and has shown DuVall that he can handle the triple-option offense, something DuVall wants to try. Casella will push junior QB Seth Willingham (6-3, 180) for the starting job.