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HILLSVILLE –– Visitors to Tommy Thompson Field will notice a few changes this year. New bleachers adorn the visitors’ side of the stadium and a new lighting system will illuminate the playing field.
Less obvious is the revolving door on the offensive line.
For the second year in a row, Carroll County finds itself ushering in a new group of offensive linemen, although circumstances don’t seem quite as dire as a year ago.
Cavalier coach Tom Hale recalls losing a key lineman to injury in last year’s benefit game and having to pull jerseys off of tight ends on the sideline and converting them to tackles on the spot.
“Hopefully that won’t be the case this year,” he said. “The good thing is, barring any injuries, there’s a good nucleus there.”
That, and the fact that the Cavaliers are pretty well-stocked in the skill positions. The bad news is that they will be putting the pieces together up front against what Hale calls the toughest schedule Carroll County has ever had. Following a benefit game against a loaded Galax, the Cavaliers open the season against Bassett, Mt. Airy, Christiansburg, Grayson County and Martinsville.
The job can be done, as proven last year when Carroll rushed for nearly 270 yards per game behind its new front. Take away two fruitless efforts against state semifinalist Christiansburg and another versus state runner-up Richlands and the rushing totals were closer to 350 yards per game. Three different Cavaliers rushed for between 583 and 745 yards each.
“Our schedule is a load early, but we feel like if we can weather that storm, we get an open week, then we feel pretty good about the rest of the season,” Hale said.
Carroll County should have the kinks worked out by the time Southwest District play begins. The exodus of Graham and Grundy to the Group A ranks leaves a five-team SWD that should once again be chasing Richlands.
The Blue Tornado features Marshall-bound runningback Devon Johnson running behind 6-foot-7, 290-pound Josh Hess, who has committed to play at Florida International.
“The fortunate thing for us is we play them at home,” Hale said. “For some reason they don’t play their best when they come here, and we like that.”
The Cavaliers return seven full- or part-time starters and are in good shape in the backfield.
“Those guys back there this year, we haven’t missed a beat,” Hale said. “I think we’re right where we should be with the execution at this point.”
Much will revolve around Jacob Mollett, a 5-11, 242-pound fullback who led the team with 745 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior. Mollett has bulked up from 215 pounds during the offseason.
“Everybody who plays Carroll County knows that we’re going to hand it to the fullback until you stop him, then we’ll do things based on that,” Hale said.
Logan Hodges will see more than the 39 attempts (for 241 yards) that he got as a junior, and wingback Brooks Hash has shown breakaway speed with some huge gains in the preseason.
Kody Alley had a pair of rushing touchdowns for the Cavaliers in 2011, while Josh Blankenship and Cameron Marshall had some decent gains in Carroll County's first scrimmage.
Hale will hand the reins to quarterback Conner Lundy, a 6-3, 160-pound sophomore. Lundy won’t be the running threat that three-year starter Blake Bowman was, but the Cavaliers should be able to mix things up more than they have in recent years.
“We’re definitely going to throw more,” said Hale. “We’ve got a quarterback who can drop back, so we don’t have to worry as much about the play-action and the sprint-out because we’ve got a 6-foot-3 kid who can help us do some things differently.”
Had backup QB Josh Underwood been wearing No. 9 in the Cavaliers’ first scrimmage, people may have believed Bowman had returned for a fourth varsity season.
“That’s our thinking,” said Hale. “He looked good enough that he’s going to be on the field offensively. He showed that he needs to be out there.”
The Cavaliers will be new up front, but not young, with five seniors and a junior. Graham Matthews (center) and Travis Kinney (tackle) return. Guards Dakota Blevins and Zack Austin and tight end Cody Spurill are back after skipping their junior seasons, and 6-5, 238-pound junior tackle Lucas Holder was a projected starter at center last year before injuring a knee in the first week of practice.
Of course with five seniors among six spots the cycle will repeat itself again next year.
Among the wideouts, Hash will be a threat as a runner and a receiver, and Chris Smoot will make a good target for Lundy, especially with the Cavalier ground game leaving him in one-on-one situations much of the time.
Patrick Davis and Taylor Case will also contribute at wideout for Carroll.
Five starters are back from a defense that held opposing offenses to one or fewer touchdowns in five of 10 regular season games last year.
“We have the most straight-up starters returning on that side of the ball,” Hale said. “Unfortunately that wasn’t where we looked our best in our first scrimmage. But if you look at the play of those particular guys, it was very good. Some of the new guys struggled reading keys, but we expected that.”
Hodges (116 tackles) is back at linebacker and Mollett (71 tackles, 6 sacks) returns at nose.
Kinney holds on to his spot at defensive end, while Smoot and Kody Alley are returning in the secondary.
In his first year playing football, Smoot earned a starting job by the third game of the season last year.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Hale said. “He caught on really quick, but he was playing just on defense last year. The question will be can he consistently play both ways.”
Ulises Moreno will be a difficult player to replace simply for the fact that he made up much of Carroll County’s special teams last year, serving as a kickoff man, a punter and a return specialist. Brooks Hash filled in at punter when Moreno was lost to injury and responded with a 34-yard average.
Matt Combs battled an illness during the summer and is working to get back into form at placekicker.
“Right now he’s not as consistent as he has been, but he will only get better,” said Hale.
Hash returned a kick 88 yards for a touchdown against Galax last week and will be joined by Alley, Patrick Davis, Underwood and Josh Blankenship on kick returns while Smoot will field punts.