— First-year Bruton football coach Timothy Smith played football at Bethel High and James Madison University, and spent the last four years as the defensive coordinator for Warwick High, a Group 5A school in the Peninsula District. Surely life in 2A football, with smaller numbers and often smaller players, will take some getting used to, right?
Smith seemed unfazed Thursday as the Panthers opened fall practice on an overcast afternoon. The 1999 Bethel graduate was hired by Bruton in May and spent summer workouts with the squad.
He said he is impressed and encouraged by his new team despite its few wins in the past few seasons for one of only a pair of 2A schools in the Bay Rivers District along with Poquoson, which won a state championship in 2010.
"The size of the kids really didn't differ very much coming from Warwick," Smith said. "We actually have some bigger kids here than we did at Warwick last year. I'm impressed with how they work. They are real coachable. We tell them to do something and we don't get much resistance at all. I think they're excited about the change and we're definitely excited about the change."
Bruton welcomed about 45 players to practice, a number that Smith expects to increase to 50-55 as preseason camp continues. The Panthers hope the turnout will yield the program's first junior varsity team in about a decade.
Goal number one for Smith has been to instill competitiveness before the first scrimmage at home Aug. 11 against Essex and the first regular season game Aug. 31 at King William.
"It's a fast pace," said senior lineman A.J. Battle. "It's more of an aggressive and organized manor… He brings in a sense of motivation, I guess."
"It's going to be a fresh start," said lineman Kailionie Cowles. "… New coach. Different plays. I think it's going to be a lot better this year."
Battle and Cowles are two of 15 seniors on the roster while Bruton's junior class is thin with four players. Playing a JV schedule would be valuable, giving some of the inexperienced underclassmen more game action.
Battle will start at center and defensive tackle while Cowles will line up at offensive tackle and defensive end. Each entered his fourth season in the program.
Smith figures the experienced offensive and defensive fronts should be a strong point for the Panthers along with some explosiveness at wide receiver led by senior playmaker Darian Brooks.
The most uncertainty lies in the backfield, where a competition at running back and quarterback will account for plenty of the preseason focus.
"Last year we kept hitting bumps," Battle said. "Everybody kept getting hurt and stuff but this year we have juniors and seniors across the board ... I think we're a pretty good team as long as we keep working and get a little bit bigger and faster."
Smith will employ a spread offense and an aggressive 4-2-5 defense and said he is ready to embrace the role of underdog in a district that now features five (Grafton, Jamestown, Lafayette, Warhill, Smithfield) 4A teams.
Playing aggressive is the only way to play, Smith said, and Bruton will attempt to "force the issue" and impose its will against opponents.
"We want to play with a little bit of edge and a chip on our shoulder," Smith said. "So it's a good position to be in, actually, because it's just natural motivation kind of built into it."
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.