By the time the bell rings to begin the school day, Kerel Whitehead often has already outworked most of his peers. Getting up before 5 a.m. to be at a local gym never struck him as a big deal, nor did spending several hours a week lifting weights, although most teenagers would rather be sleeping than pumping iron in the hours before sunrise.

Whitehead, a rising senior at Bowie High, sat out last football season because of a back injury. But, after being cleared by his doctor to resume physical activity this past spring, Whitehead is again in top shape and said he expects to start at running back.

"It's going to be my last season to really get my name out there," said Whitehead, who hopes to use his speed and strength to make up for being 5 feet 7. "I've been to a lot of [offseason] camps, but this is going to be my year. I'm going to have it on tape."

With the state's public schools scheduled to start practice Saturday, Whitehead is not alone in his optimism, with a sense of eagerness throughout the county.

Eleanor Roosevelt, which features All-Met quarterback and cornerback Derrick Williams, hopes to improve on last season's Maryland 4A semifinal finish. Gwynn Park, a Maryland 3A semifinalist last season, has several returning players and key transfers. And Potomac, after a heartbreaking overtime loss in the Maryland 2A final, has back most of its top players, led by tackle Gus Parrish and wide receiver Korey Coles.

There also is plenty of enthusiasm at Bowie, which has had back-to-back losing seasons since winning the Maryland 4A title in 2001 and finished last season with a four-game losing streak. Bulldogs Coach Ray Hicks said his team's participation in summer passing leagues should help and thinks his new running back and safety is ready.

"We've just got to find somebody to block for him a little bit," Hicks said. "He's really good. I'm excited. I just can't wait to see him in pads. I know he's ready to hit somebody. We know he can hit, and we know he has the ability to be something special. We're just waiting for him to put it all together."

Whitehead transferred to Bowie from South Charleston, W. Va., two years ago and played briefly at the end of the season as a sophomore. He hoped to play more last season but, last summer, he began experiencing pain in his back after a football camp at the University of Virginia. Testing revealed a fractured vertebra, which required Whitehead to wear a back brace and refrain from physical activity.

"The doctor told me it had to be from all the jarring," Whitehead said.

Although he had to protect his back, Whitehead continued to exercise with his arms. He had become a workout fiend at age 13, when he asked his parents for a weight set for his birthday, a gift he put to good use.

"A lot of [my friends] thought it was weird for me to be doing something like this," Whitehead said. "After a while, when they started getting into high school, they realized I had an advantage because I had been doing it."

And when you're only 5-feet-7, you need every edge you can get.

"Being short, I've got to have the advantage some kind of way," said Whitehead, who weighs 195 pounds. "You can be fast, but I wanted to have both. I wanted to have speed and strength."

Whitehead's dedication paid off. When doctors told him he could resume lifting weights without restrictions, he found that he had retained much of his strength. He now can bench-press more than 400 pounds. At a spring camp at Virginia, Whitehead posted the highest score of more than 300 top athletes from the region in an index of strength, speed and other physical attributes.

"I've been working so hard," he said. "If I get out there and play there is no choice but for me to do well when I step on the field."

Senior running back Kerel Whitehead has returned to the team after a back injury forced him to sit out last season.