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Turner Ashby junior Grant Swinehart trips over Fort Defiance junior Aaron Wright on a short carry at Fort Defiance last season.

Prep football officially begins Thursday with Harrisonburg getting underway with its first practice of the year while the other four city/county teams will start practice on Monday.

Here's the first of my weekly prep football mailbag this preseason. You can submit questions to celliott@dnronline.com, on Twitter or Facebook.

With Trey Gillenwater transferring to [Eastern Mennonite High School]. What are the Knights looking like? All three kids who have played quarterback for them are now gone.

--Jason L.

When this question was sent in, it was arguably going to be the biggest storyline entering training camp for Turner Ashby and a giant unknown entering the preseason.

Last week, however, Chris Fraser told the Daily News-Record that senior C.J. Haskins will move into the quarterback role this season after playing strong safety and serving as the team's backup running back the past two seasons.

It's an interesting move for the Knights, but one that's hard to argue with after back-to-back two-win seasons under Fraser.

The Knights averaged just 11 points per game over their final four games of the season last year and dropped six in a row to close out the year. While the defense carried a lot of the blame — TA gave up 41.4 points per game — the offense had its own struggles.

Then Tyler Quick, who was one of the team's most dynamic playmakers at the quarterback position despite fitting more naturally at running back, left to graduation and Trey Gillenwater, who showed flashes in limited time last season as a sophomore, transferred to Eastern Mennonite High School. That left the Knights scrambling.

So naturally, as with any football coach in the Shenandoah Valley would do in that situation, Fraser said he simply started going down the pecking order with his coaching staff of the best athletes on his team.

Grant Swinehart, another senior, is arguably the best running back in the Valley District this year and has received Division I interest, so moving him was out of the question.

Next on the list, in terms of leadership and athleticism, was the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Haskins, who is known for his high motor and tenacity on both sides of the ball.

It's a change for Haskins, who acknowledged he'll have to learn how to control taking hits on offense so he doesn't get hurt, but almost fitting for a guy that everyone around the TA program raves about in terms of work ethic and leadership abilities.

It also helps that Fraser has said the team will go back to a Wing-T offense — something he planned on incorporating when hired in 2017, but opted to not to at first — and will rely on a run-heavy system that is simplified to the core.

That will allow Haskins to pick up quickly and pairing him with Swinehart in the backfield forms arguably one of the better 1-2 punches in the Valley District.


Who has the best defense in the area?

--Leland M.

Until proven otherwise, it's hard not to go with Spotswood on this one.

The Trailblazers had a formidable offense last season and a lot of really intriguing pieces on that side of the ball, but the defense is undoubtedly what carried that team to their first Valley District championship since 2013 last season.

If you take away the 34-7 drubbing at the hands of East Rockingham in the season opener and the 40-38 loss to Liberty-Bedford in the opening round of the Region 3C playoffs, Spotswood's defense put up some of the best numbers in the state.

In nine games, the Trailblazers allowed 9.9 points per game and gave up a touchdown or less in four of those contests.

From a "turnover chain" similar to the one the Miami Hurricanes used during the 2017 season, to high-fives and chest bumps along the sideline, defensive coordinator John Weeks brought the energy to SHS last season, and it showed in its play.

The linebacking corps is one of the best in the region, if not the state, with seniors Ben Conahan and Cole Myers leading the charge there, but the Trailblazers defense is deep at almost every position along the front seven.

Dallas Khalil and Colby Morris are a pair of men among boys along the defensive line and while the secondary has some questions with the loss of Connell Ischinger and Ripley Plaster, having athletes like Rob Smith back there surely will help.

The Spotswood offense is expected to take another step forward this season under the guidance of junior quarterback Ryan High, but if the Trailblazers repeat as district champions and make any significant postseason noise, it will be the defense coming through once again.


As a general fan of football in the Shenandoah Valley, what are the quarterback-receiver duos to watch for this fall?

--Tyler B.

When looking around the city/county, there are a few that come to mind immediately.

Obviously, the pairing of Spotswood junior Ryan High, who threw for 1,672 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, with the freakishly athletic Rob Smith is intriguing after all the promise Smith showed in his first season last year.

With another year learning the sport under his belt and some improvement in his route running, Smith could emerge as one of the area's best all-around receivers and pairing him with arguably the best quarterback is a scary thought for opposing defenses.

Another intriguing duo that is contingent on who is ultimately named the starting quarterback is the Broadway duo of Caleb Williams and Nate Tinnell.

Williams is coming off ACL surgery and his timetable for a return is unknown at the time, but he's been working throughout the offseason for the switch to the signal-caller position. His sidekick through a lot of those workouts has been Tinnell.

At 6-foot-4, Tinnell has great athleticism for his size and showed off his hands on both sides of the ball last season for the Gobblers.

Pairing those two together could be a strong combination if both can stay healthy for the entire season.

At Harrisonburg, the combination of senior quarterback Kwentin Smiley and senior receiver Austin White, who used to play quarterback, is another pair to watch.

Smiley struggled at times with his throwing mechanics during his junior year and was known for his dynamic running abilities, but if he's improved in the passing game as he said he would do throughout the summer, him and White will form a formidable punch.

Outside of the three Valley District duos, I think Strasburg quarterback Chase Hart — a William and Mary commit — will put up big numbers, but his targets are a little unknown after the graduation of Stephen Kloosterman. Also, keep an eye on Staunton's Will Dod at quarterback and the pairings of Ty Ruley and Jailik Lynch from Rockbridge County and Henry Cooke and Freddy Watkins at Stuarts Draft.


Turner Ashby, Broadway or Waynesboro? How do you rank them?

--Leland M.

I'm assuming this question is under the idea that Spotswood, Harrisonburg and Rockbridge County will be battling it out for the Valley District's top spot — and that's most likely. But it's also not a guarantee in a league that, outside of the Trailblazers, is wide open.

All three of these teams have major question marks after last year with Waynesboro going 0-10, Turner Ashby finished 2-8 for a second straight year and Broadway finishing 4-6 and coming up just short of making the Region 3C playoffs.

The Gobblers, while having the most wins to build off from a year ago, are in their first season under coach Danny Grogg and have to replace an array of talented skill players from a year ago such as quarterback Nick Lohr, running back Brandon Cruz and others.

With that being said, Broadway has had some enthusiasm this offseason and Grogg and his staff have pledged to bring a lot of intensity to the program this season.

The Knights, meanwhile, have three of the Valley District's top players in running back Grant Swinehart, quarterback/safety C.J. Haskins and lineman Jessie Knight, but questions remain about what the team has outside of those three.

As for the Little Giants, they still have some key skill guys, but the team didn't just struggle last year. They were simply overmatched almost every week and that makes it hard to pick them to turn it around anytime soon at this point.

These rankings will likely fluctuate throughout the year, but for now, I'll go: 1. Broadway, 2. Turner Ashby, 3. Waynesboro.


When are they going to stop the nonsense of playing at JMU? Most of the schools lose money playing there. The majority of fans don't like it. Spotswood and possibly Harrisonburg are the only ones that like playing there.

--Jerry M.

Well, while Spotswood and Harrisonburg may like it a little more because of their recent success, the notion that other teams in the area don't enjoy it simply isn't true.

Many players around the Shenandoah Valley won't play college football and even more will not reach the Division I level, so the one night they get to play in Bridgeforth Stadium at JMU each season has become a pretty special moment.

Outside of the emotional reasons, it's also been a financial bonus each year and hasn't been unfair to any certain teams as the five "home teams" split the profit each season.

Last season, the five "hosts" — Spotswood, East Rockingham, Staunton, Harrisonburg and Turner Ashby — each brought back $4,696 for their home gate.

The event remains a hit with all involved so far and unless there are significant changes or a scheduling hiccup in the upcoming years, I don't see it changing anytime soon.


Can Rockbridge County defeat Spotswood this year?

--Karen D.

Rockbridge County hasn't had good luck with Spotswood in recent years, but that could change if the Wildcats can make some improvements from last season.

The Trailblazers defeated Rockbridge twice in 2017 — once in the regular season and again in the first round of the Region 3C playoffs — and then handled the Wildcats 35-7 in a highly-anticipated matchup in Penn Laird last season.

That game proved to be a testament to how great the Spotswood defense was with how it shut down the high-flying spread attack of Rockbridge, but also showcased some of the flaws the Wildcats had themselves.

Over the final few weeks, RCHS coach Mark Poston opted to incorporate the run game more, albeit still not as much as other teams in the Valley District, and it resulted in the Wildcats getting back into the postseason once again.

This year, Rockbridge returns quarterback Ty Ruley and receiver Jailik Lynch, who were two of the better players in the district last year.

The combination of those two along with an improved defense should give the Wildcats as good of a chance as anybody to dethrone Spotswood atop the district.

While the Trailblazers certainly enter the season as the favorite, there's no reason that Rockbridge County couldn't find itself there by the time the season ends.


Will there ever be a Jetsons movie?

--Allen Gregory, Bristol

No.

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