With the kickoff of the 2014 high school football season quickly approaching, our reporters will be out at local practices checking in with contenders, dark horses and rebuilding teams alike as they gear up for the fall. Here is the latest installment of Camp Countdown:
Riverdale Baptist quarterback Amir Hall dropped back around the 35-yard line, checked right, then hit one of his running backs with a high-arching spiral toward the left sideline. The toss led Hall’s target into just enough space, and the offense was set up for some red zone work.
Hall half danced, half skipped back to the sideline for the next play call. He seemed to have forgotten he had already been practicing for hours that afternoon — after a morning session no less — and that August two-a-days are not supposed to be quite so much fun.
But after an undefeated season in the disciplined, grounded offense of a beloved coach who stepped down this off-season, the Crusaders have a new formula they hope will yield similar results. With a new coach, new players, and a more pass-prevalent offense led by Hall, Riverdale is flying with energy and excitement despite the weight of growing expectations.
The Crusaders announced themselves last year with an undefeated season and Capital Area Football Conference championship, the culmination of eight years of building by then-coach Bob Shields. Shields built his offense around powerful running back Justin Baynes, who delivered nearly 1,400 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. Hall longed to throw more, but understood the need to play within the Crusaders’ wing-T system.
“There were times when I got frustrated, but Justin had to get the ball,” Hall said. “It was my time to take a back seat.”
But this year, with speedy returners and equally as elusive newcomers all over the field, new coach Caesar Nettles switched Riverdale into a pro-style spread offense.
“We don’t have big running backs to play the slots like we did,” senior lineman Isaac Jackson said. “We have more fast, elusive slot receivers and a better quarterback than most people might think. We can throw the ball, and people don’t know that.”
According to statistics reported to The Post, the Crusaders ran on 253 plays last season — or 77 percent of the time — and threw on just 77, a number likely to increase in Nettles’s new offense. Part of the reason for the switch is team speed, like that in 6-2 senior Jaison Young, 6-1 Zech McPherson, and short, fast transfer Jalen Hill, a track star who moved to the area from North Carolina.
Several transfers — like Hill and linebacker Joshua Lee from Good Counsel — have joined the Crusaders this season, something that both bolsters the roster and reveals the elevated status that comes with an undefeated season, even in one of the area’s lesser-known private school conferences.
“[Getting transfers] is the one thing that Coach [Caesar] has been able to do that Coach Shields wasn’t,” Jackson said. “Coach Shields tried to do it, but we hadn’t won a lot of games in the past so he couldn’t do it like he wanted to. Coach [Caesar] had the opportunity to talk to kids and say ‘we just went undefeated.’”
Those transfers add weapons to a core of returners already loaded with emerging elite recruits. Junior cornerback Sir Patrick Scott earned an offer from Michigan State in this offseason, and the 6-1 speedster likely has more on the way, according to Nettles. Army offered Jackson Thursday night, joining a list of suitors that already included Hampton and others. Young has an offer from Howard, and Nettles expects those three and others to grow their lists after this season.
The growing list of high-profile recruits reveals the effect that undefeated season had on the Crusaders’ national recruiting profile. Nettles hopes to raise the school’s football footprint in the D.C.-area scene, too.
In addition to his CAFC schedule that includes Perry Street Prep and new-look Avalon, among others, Nettles scheduled MIAA teams like Archbishop Spalding and St. Mary’s-Annapolis, as well as the IAC’s Georgetown Prep. He said he hoped to schedule a WCAC team or two, which didn’t work out scheduling-wise, but nevertheless thinks the revamped schedule will help his team continue to elbow its way into the minds of top prep-bound recruits and the area’s elite.
“It’s just to get a higher level of competition,” Nettles said. “The goal is to play the best areas in the area and get to the point where we can consistently play with them. And to that, we have to start scheduling them.”