Cumberland surprised most football observers last year by winning six of 10 games, including victories over county rivals Harlan and Cawood. Only a second-half meltdown at Lynn Camp kept the Skins out of the playoffs, making them hungrier to take the next step this fall and end a two-year playoff drought.
"Our goal every year is to get to the playoffs, and I think we have a good team, possibly better than last year," said senior linebacker Philip Gilliam. "Some of the young guys have to step up a little."
Jon Reynolds, who enters his second year as the Redskins' coach, knows matching last year's performance won't be easy, especially with the loss of 13 seniors.
"Everybody gets a sense of what you're doing (in the second year), and they get the feel for it," he said. "When you also lose a bunch of key players at key positions, the question is whether the kids filling their shoes will step up and do as good, or at least come close.
"But it's been a joy to work with this group so far. They seem to push themselves more than any group I've ever been around."
Just as Reynolds promised in the preseason, the Redskins became more balanced offensively in 2004 in their Wing-T attack. Cumberland rushed for 2,032 yards and passed for 1,287, a dramatic difference from the previous four years when the Skins were almost exclusively a passing team.
"The philosophy isn't going to change. We'll pass 14 or 15 times a game and run around 30," Reynolds said. "The offense is suited for what we have. Our kids aren't exceptionally strong, and this offense has more angle blocks and misdirection."
A strong running attack will be even more crucial this year following the graduation of quarterback Drew Allison, who passed for 1,272 yards, and wingback Marty Doyle, who caught 24 passes for 482 yards.
"You don't replace some of the guys we lost. You just fill in the spots and hope they can be successful," Reynolds said.
With two weeks left of summer practice, Reynolds hadn't decided on his starting quarterback. Michael Washington and Chris Vicini, both juniors who played receiver last year, are competing for the job, along with freshman Zach Blanton.
"Michael can throw well and scramble great," Reynolds said. "Blanton can throw and is smart, but he's young. Chris is probably the smartest of the three, but is the slowest of the three and probably has the weakest arm."
More consistency from senior Robert Constant could be the key to the success of the Skins' ground attack. Constant, who rushed for a team-high 632 yards last year, isn't expected to return to school until Aug. 26 due to disciplinary issues.
"I would say you'll see him the first week in September," Reynolds said. "Robert, from all indications, is working pretty good. He's up to 220 pounds and is bench pressing 325. He'll definitely help our team."
Junior Justin Cornett and sophomore Henry Banks are dividing most of the reps in practice while Constant is away.
"They both have pretty good speed," Reynolds said. "Cornett blocks really well, and Henry is probably the fastest of the two."
Senior Brad Watts gives the Skins a workhorse at fullback who is capable of picking up the tough yards. He gained 362 yards on the ground last year and caught 14 passes for 98 yards.
"Brad brings in the power game. He's kind of like a bowling ball out there," Reynolds said.
Sophomore Jay Feltner and freshman Nathaniel Gilliam provide depth at fullback.
The offensive line was one of the most improved areas for the Skins last year and should remain strong with senior guard Philip Gilliam (6-0, 190) and senior tackle Jonathan Begley (5-10, 250) returning on the left side.
"Philip is quick and has good driving ability. He's the best lineman we have," Reynolds said. "Begley is probably the hardest hitter of the bunch. He just needs to apply himself more to get the job done."
Junior Johnny Johnson (5-9, 170), freshman Cody Ison (5-11, 190) and sophomore Nick Wilson (5-9, 200) are the leading candidates to win the starting job at right guard.
A pair of massive sophomores Diontae Ellington (6-3, 285) and William Marshall (6-1, 255) are the leading candidates at center. Begley could also shift there from tackle.
"Potential abounds for both Ellington and Marshall. Ellington has lost some weight and moves a lot better," Reynolds said. "Marshall is a big, strong kid who doesn't know his own strength. If he applies himself more, he could be a force."
Ellington and sophomore Tyler White (6-3, 265) will vie for the starting job at right tackle. Freshman Brad Sturgill (5-10, 200) will also see action on the line.
Sophomore Jon Fields (6-0, 210) moves from guard to replace Kevin McIlquham at tight end.
"He's got a lot stronger and seems to have pretty decent hands," Reynolds said.
Junior Chris Vicini and sophomore Donnie Shepherd are the leading candidates to start at wide receiver if Washington, who caught 20 passes for 349 yards last year, wins the quarterback job.
"Both of them block, and that's what I like," Reynolds said.
Senior Cody Hall and sophomore Ryan Sergent will have to fill the big shoes left behind by Doyle, who was second in the county in receiving and 10th in rushing with 382 yards.
"Cody is a beefy back and is more of a power guy," Reynolds said. "Sergent is the same. He has speed but loves to hit."
Fields is expected to be the Skins' kicker.
Reynolds plans a "bend but don't break" philosophy this year on defense, trying to eliminate the big plays that proved to be so costly for the Redskins last year, especially in district losses to Somerset, Lynn Camp, Evarts and Williamsburg. Cumberland gave up 11 touchdown plays of 30 yards or more in those four games.
"Defense is going to be a key to our season. If we improve defensively, I think we can have a decent year," Reynolds said.
The Redskins switched from a "Split 6" defense to a "34" in an effort to cut down on big plays.
"That's why we went with four defensive backs, to stop these big plays," he said.
Johnson is being counted on as a playmaker in the middle of the Skins' defense at nose tackle.
"He's very quick," Reynolds said. "He was hard for people to block last year when he was lined up on the guard, and now we'll put him on the center. If they double him, it gives our linebackers free scrapes. If they don't double, he should be in the backfield."
Begley, Marshall, Ellington and White could also see action at tackle, especially when the Skins switch to a six-man front.
Watts moves to defensive end after three years as a starting linebacker. Sophomore Josh Jones (5-9, 220) or Ison will start at the other end.
"We moved Brad by necessity. He is probably the best with somebody in front of him trying to block that we've got," Reynolds said.
Gilliam returns at inside linebacker alongside Partin or Feltner.
"Philip can run the field," Reynolds said. "Partin also can run well, is tough-nosed and can hit. Feltner is quick and fairly strong for his age."
Hall and Fields are returning as the outside linebackers, with Sergent and junior James Ferguson also expected to see action.
Washington and Vicini give the Skins a pair of athletic cornerbacks who each have a year of experience as starters. Blanton and Banks will also push for playing time. Justin Cornett is expected to take over at strong safety with Donnie Shepherd moving in at free safety.
"I like the secondary so far, and I like the looks of the linebackers. We just need to get more physical play out of the tackles," Reynolds said.
Watts or Washington will handle the punting chores.
If the Redskins had been able to hold a 26-0 lead last year at Lynn Camp, they would have finished at least third in District 7 of Class A and made the playoffs. Reynolds hopes for another opportunity like that this year and believes his team is capable of earning one of the top four spots in the district.
"I don't see why they couldn't be better, but they could also be worse," Reynolds said. "It depends on what they want to give."
Reynolds picks Somerset and Lynn Camp as the favorites, but he expects a competitive race with no dominant teams in the district.
"I still think on a given night that anybody can beat anybody," he said. "Our goals haven't changed. We want a winning season, and we want to host a home playoff game."