If summer practice turnouts are any indication, football is going through a healthy change in Howard County. Several schools, namely Mount Hebron, Atholton and Glenelg, are reporting record or near-record attendance at practice this year.
Then again, some things never change. Wilde Lake, the smallest school in the county, the defending county and Class 1A state champion, remains the team to beat this fall.
Who will offer the best challenge to the Wildecats? Oakland Mills usually fills that role, but the Scorpions are fielding one of their more inexperienced teams in years. Howard looks like the only team that can approach the Wildecats in terms of speed and skill, but the Lions are still trying to give seventh-year coach John Quinn his first winning season. Hammond is hoping to parley its massive size on the line into a winning season.
The rest of the county is in various rebuilding stages. Atholton lost nearly all of its offensive weapons to graduation. Centennial is committed to a youth movement that doesn't figure to make them contenders this year. And Glenelg and Mount Hebron are still trying to achieve respectability.
Here is a look at each team:
The Raiders came into last season determined to try something new -- the run-and-shoot offense -- to energize a stagnating program. The result was an interesting 6-4 season in which Atholton scored 20 points a game and produced three All-County players on offense. Now, Atholton must start over, since most of its skill-position players graduated. But coach Don Van Deusen isn't budging on his game plan.
"We're instituting it [the run-and-shoot] with the junior varsity this year," Van Deusen said. "We're committed to it. And we're more ready to go with it this year."
We'll see about that. Except for running back Carlando Love, Atholton will depend on newcomers to spark the offense. Senior Ryan McQueeny figures to win the starting quarterback job, although he is being pushed by junior Jason Albert and sophomore Jamie Burford. And about a dozen candidates are vying for the starting four wide receiver spots.
Van Deusen will depend on Love more. This could be his breakthrough season. Love rushed for 350 yards last year and broke several long runs as a kick returner. His 4.8-second, 40-yard -- speed is perfect for the open field that the run-and-shoot often creates.
The offense will be anchored up front by seniors Richard Blankenship (guard), Kevin Nickey (center) and Jason Walker (guard), all returning starters. Nickey and Walker will also lead Atholton's inexperienced, 4-4 defense at the inside linebacker positions.
Typically, the Raiders are far from the fastest or biggest team in the county. Then again, Van Deusen has battled those obstacles successfully for years.
This is easily the youngest team third-year coach Ed Holshue has had. Only two starters -- quarterback/safety Lawrence Holmes and running back/linebacker Jeremy Odelius -- return. Still, Holshue can barely contain his excitement over what he calls his best group of underclassmen.
"The way things are looking, we'll only start three or four seniors on offense and defense," Holshue said. "The lack of varsity experience is going to create some mistakes. But I like where this team is going. The future is very bright."
Holshue expects defense to be the Eagles' strong suit.
Sophomores Robbie Hauff and Chris Cochran will start at defensive end. Holshue calls them the best ends Centennial has ever had. Then there are sophomores Steve Puckett (guard/defensive tackle) and Kevin O'Connor (linebacker/tight end), who will start both ways. Juniors Jeff Goldeberg and Chong Choe will start at linebacker. Then there's 5-foot-11, 280-pound John O'Connor, a first-time player who will start at offensive tackle initially and probably move on to defensive tackle as well. Junior Walter Song will start at nose guard.
All of the above players have yet to play a varsity down. The offense is more experienced, with senior receivers Nathan Hunt and Bill Chedester complementing Holmes and Odelius. But if the Eagles are going to break loose from consecutive 5-5 seasons, they need the youngsters to lead the way.
All things considered, Ed Ashwell's rookie year as a head coach went fairly well. The Gladiators, who were sinking when Ashwell took over, struggled to a 2-8 record and lost another three games by a combined three touchdowns. The question is, even with seven starters back, where will they go from here?
The Gladiators still lack a player with game-breaking speed, and their offense will be led by unproven Mike Morraye, the 5-9 junior quarterback who started the final three games last year. Their strength lies in numbers. About 40 players came out for the team, a significant increase over last year. That should allow Ashwell to concentrate on developing more one-way players.
"We're much further along than we were at this time last year," Ashwell said. "We're much stronger physically. Ball control will be our key."