Northwest busted out its new matte-black helmets during the team’s first official practice Wednesday morning in Germantown, a stylish upgrade from the glossy-silver-coated helmets that were scarred during the team’s impressive run to the Maryland 4A West final last season.
But the helmets were really the only polished part of the team Wednesday, and that’s how coach Mike Neubeiser expects it to be in the middle of August. It’s open competition across the board for a team that returns just six starters and has largely been depleted of seniors. Starting quarterback Matty Callahan is gone. One of the the team’s most productive running backs last fall, Tyler Ambush, is gone. So is the speedy Ryan Markush, whose receiving and kick returning ability earned him an invite to the Crab Bowl last year.
“We don’t have that many seniors this year,” senior safety Luke Pierce, a two-year starter, said, adding that the team hasn’t forgotten about its ugly loss to Quince Orchard in the state playoffs last November. “It’s motivation. It was pretty bad, so [we're] looking to get it done this year.”
Neubieser, who took over the program three years ago and turned a team that went 1-9 in 2010 to 5-5 in 2011 to 8-4 and one of Montgomery County’s best last year, thinks this team will be faster than last year’s squad. His best returning weapon is senior Josh Gills, who will start at quarterback but won’t play the entire game under center; he’s too valuable to keep off the perimeter. So he’ll play running back and in the slot, and will start at cornerback on defense.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Gills, who is still awaiting is first scholarship offer, threw for three touchdowns as a junior, rushed for five more and caught six. Gills finished with 1,143 yards from scrimmage, including 753 yards rushing. He was one of only a handful of players who played in 10 or more games as well, proving his durability despite playing all over the field.
“Just like last year, I’m going to be all over the place” Gills said. “I’m going to be an athlete.”
Callahan threw for 2,515 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior, and that production will be hard to match this fall. But Neubeiser said Wednesday that his team will not shy away from the same spread system. He will platoon Gills and sophomore Mark Pierce (Luke’s younger brother) at quarterback and will rely on playmakers such as EJ Lee, a 5-foot-5, 165-pound junior running back who will bring the immediate speed Neubeiser is looking for. The Jaguars also have a veteran defensive back in Rodney Snider back, as well as an experienced lineman in Brandon Hungerford.
A former Gaithersburg star and Wake Forest linebacker, Neubeiser believes in the system that has turned around Northwest’s program the past three years – which requires a little method of “madness,” he said.
“We actually have more speed. We’re going to be a little bit faster than last year,” Neubeiser said. “You know, we’re younger, not quite as experienced, but I think we’ll be a little bit quicker.”