Stone Bridge senior linebacker Khalil Conteh doesn't often question himself. He normally exudes confidence, but a year ago he called himself a fool.
A fool for not having joined the Bulldogs football team as a sophomore, when he first moved to the Ashburn school from Annandale High. A fool for having underestimated the strength and tradition of the Stone Bridge football program.
Now, he defines it.
"Khalil is exactly the kind of player we look for," Coach Mickey Thompson said. "He makes us aggressive on defense. The fact that he can come from anywhere and run down plays, . . . he just never stops moving. We can blitz him and even if he's not near the play, he'll find it eventually."
As a newcomer to the team, Conteh did not even start at the beginning of last season. But once given an opportunity, he made the most of it, emerging as the Bulldogs' defensive leader. In the process he earned not only the starting job but also second-team All-Met honors.
Despite his 5-foot-8, 170-pound frame, Conteh finished last season's run to the Virginia AA Division 4 semifinals with a team-high 10 sacks -- just one fewer than Dulles District defensive player of the year Alex Field of Broad Run -- and 86 tackles. He also caused four fumbles.
"Football people think you have to be big, but little players can do just as much as bigger guys if they play with heart," Conteh said. "That's what I go out there every game to prove. I'm aggressive every down, and I give 100 percent to make a play. Wherever the ball is, whether it's right in front of me or on the other side of the field, I'm going to find it and get there."
This season Conteh will be relied on for much more than just that big-play ability on defense. Many of the offensive starters from a year ago graduated and took with them more than 4,200 yards of total offense, prompting Thompson to say he also plans to give Conteh six to 10 touches on offense each game.
That might have been the case a year ago, too, had Conteh played as a sophomore. But with his junior year being the first in Stone Bridge's system, Thompson hesitated to throw too much his way. Still, in 16 carries he compiled 141 yards and two touchdowns, an average of 8.8 yards
"No question we still need him to go full speed on defense," Thompson said. "That'll be the priority. But we also feel like we need him to contribute on offense for us to have a chance to really do something."
That's the kind of heavy expectations that Conteh -- no longer the fool -- loves being thrown his way.
"All I've ever wanted is the chance to show people what I can do," Conteh said. "There is a tradition at this school. I'm going to help keep it going."