HARRISONBURG — With dots of sweat lined across his forehead and a small drip falling from the base of his nose, Jaylin Smith smiled as he talked about getting back to “my happy place.”
The intense heat didn’t matter. What the future holds for his team wasn’t important. All of the preseason questions could wait.
Smith, a Harrisonburg senior, said he was just happy to strap on his navy blue helmet and get back on the gridiron.
“Just being able to play football kind of erases all the hotness,” Smith said. “It just feels good to be out here doing what I love.”
The Blue Streaks opened practice Thursday — the first official day allowed by the Virginia High School League — and were the only city/county team to do so.
Broadway, East Rockingham, Spotswood and Turner Ashby will all start their training camps Monday. But there was a reason Harrisonburg opted to start so early.
“It’s a young team, but we have some talent,” HHS ninth-year coach Chris Thurman said. “We just have to hope we can put it all together in a couple of weeks here and get it ready for the first game.”
There weren’t a lot of familiar faces on the field for Harrisonburg on its first day of training camp with standouts Marcus Robinson-Jenkins, Victor Lynch, Chris Johnson, Jahiem Anderson, Gabe Perrot and Tommy Karageorge all gone to graduation.
One player who was there, however, was senior quarterback Kwentin Smiley.
“We’ve got to be patient,” Smiley said. “It’s going to take time. We have to get everything down that we need to so that they don’t overthink anything and can just play.”
There are plenty of questions for the Streaks this season outside of Smiley.
The entire secondary will feature first-year starters, the offensive and defensive lines still need time to develop; and while there is talent, Thurman said most of the skill positions are up for grabs throughout all of training camp.
“It’s the first time in 20 years that we’re waiting to see who the running back is going to be,” Thurman said. “We’re going to see who it is coming out of camp this year. Normally, you know going in. We’ll see who gets it out of camp.”
While replacing so many players at key positions isn’t ideal, it’s a situation that Thurman said is a normal occurrence when coaching football in the Shenandoah Valley.
He said he had some players missing from Thursday’s practice because of obligations with their AAU basketball teams and had several others who played travel soccer and baseball throughout the summer.
But once he gets his full roster together, he's confident the HHS coaching staff will be able to find the right fit for each position.
“The good thing about being [at Harrisonburg] is there’s always going to be a group of kids that can run,” Thurman said. “We’ll be OK.”
One of the biggest keys to bringing the youth along is the role the Harrisonburg seniors are taking on this season after losing so many players a year ago.
“I’m basically trying to take on more of a leadership role, take these young guys in and teach them how to play football,” Smith said. “I’m just teaching them our plays, how we do stuff on the varsity. I’m trying to just get them comfortable.”
Last year, Smiley was a soft-spoken first year starter learning the offense.
Chris Thurman said he knows he has a challenge ahead of him.
On Thursday, however, he said he’s much more comfortable this season and ready to take on more of a leadership role to help the younger guys get up to speed with the varsity level.
“I’m looking forward to the season,” Smiley said. “I think we’ll be all right. I’ve been waiting for this since last year. I feel like we have something to prove this year.”
While the first few weeks can be a bit tedious at times for the experienced veterans, Smith said it’s crucial to helping first-year players develop, especially on the varsity level.
“Just making sure they get all their reps in,” Smith said. “Getting a lot of reputation is the key thing. If you get it down mentally and stuck in your mind, you should be good.”
The Harrisonburg JV team won’t start practice until Monday, meaning the coaching staff was able to focus on working solely with the varsity players throughout all of Thursday’s practice.
“It’s gotta be fundamentals,” Thurman said. “We’re so young and we’re really going slow right now as far as install and putting stuff in. We have to make sure everybody understands exactly what we’re doing. There’s not a ton of returners. … It’s got to be really slow so that they understand exactly where we’re trying to get to.”
And while the focus was on the younger players and their development, Thursday also marked the start of the final year for players like Smiley and Smith.
John Jackson, a senior linebacker and offensive lineman for the Streaks, said that put a little more meaning behind each moment throughout practice on Thursday.
“It’s fun,” Jackson said. “I’ve been looking forward to this day since the end of last season. It’s hard, but it’s a lot of fun. I kind of just take in every moment I can. It’s my last season playing with these guys, so it makes everything a little more special.”
While the questions about the position battles will loom and the playbook will eventually get installed, Smith said all of that didn’t matter right now as he basked in the sun.
On the first day of football season, it’s about stepping back on the field.
Because after all, that's where Smith said he's happiest.
“Everybody is just really excited,” Smith said. “I’m excited. I’ve been waiting nine months for this. I’m just excited to get back out here, get the team together and play some football.”