Thad Wheeler’s first observation upon becoming Warhill High’s football coach in 2014 was the players needed to get stronger.
Entering his fourth season, Wheeler, a state-record-setting lifter in his days as a high school football player in Georgia, says that mission has been accomplished.
“Strength was a limiting factor, but we’ve been able to go four (seasons) in the weight room and that’s not something we’re trying to overcome anymore,” Wheeler said . “This can be a dominating group.”
Competing, not dominance, will be the objective on Friday when the Lions (4-7 a year ago) host Peninsula District power Heritage at Wanner Stadium in the season opener for both. The Hurricanes were 8-4 a year ago and are again one of the best in the district.
“Heritage has size up front and behind the defensive linemen are seven kids that can run,” Wheeler said. “We’ve got to get out quick, attack and hit things, and not run around their speed.
“It’s will be a challenge, but it’s a challenge the kids will be excited about.”
Why not? While Warhill made 3A East Region playoff appearances the past two seasons, it has not been above .500 since 2012, when William and Mary standout Devonte Dedmon led the Lions to six victories.
There is no Dedmon running around the Lions practice field, but the capable skill players they have will operate behind an experienced and strong offensive line. Leading the way are the guards, headlined by three-year starters Jack Wright and Bryant Walker.
“They’re quick and can run, which you need from linemen in the Wing-T offense because there are many mobile parts,” Wheeler said.
Walker said, “If you ask Jack Wright to do something, he’ll get it done. He’s a heck of a blocker for his size (5-feet-10, 170 pounds) and is fast.”
If the Lions possess a lineman who can dominate physically it’s Elijah Paige, who has developed strength to go with his 6-3, 290-pound frame.
“He stacks them up and knocks them down,” Walker says.
Paige, will play in a three-man rotation at tackle with fellow seniors Liam McLatchey and Josh Farley. Junior center Rafael Nieto is the only new starter on an offensive line that also returns tight ends Alex Minter, an aggressive blocker and able pass-catcher.
Assistant coach Marcus Rivera is charged with putting the offensive line together. He was a standout on offensive lines of Lafayette High teams that reached consecutive state finals (in 2001 and ’02) before playing at Christopher Newport University.
“Coach Riv isn’t a vocal, get-in-your-face coach, but he’s definitely about getting the job done, so he takes the little things to heart,” Walker said. “He’s very technical.”
The line should help the Lions ramp up the passing game behind new quarterback Jamin Hazelaar, who has played well in scrimmages.
Nevertheless, the Lions, who’ve switched from the wishbone to the Wing-T, will primarily be a rushing team. Rodney Hudson and Armond Fannin, who combined for more than 1,000 rushing yards a year ago, will lead the way. However, as many as six backs per game could get several carries apiece in the deep rotation.
“The depth we’ve developed has allowed us to do much more,” Wheeler said.
“We’re not the fastest team, but Coach Wheeler has instilled in us to be the meanest and most aggressive,” Walker said. “If we trust in the system and do our jobs, we can play with anyone.”
HERITAGE VS. WARHILL
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday.
WHERE: Wanner Stadium in James City County.
LAST YEAR: Warhill went 4-7, reaching the first round of the 3A East Region playoffs, while Heritage was 8-4 and reached the 4A East Region semifinals.
O’Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963 and @MartyO’BrienDP