Optimism and expectations are high surrounding George Washington’s football program, with practice beginning Monday. Numbers are high, too, which is just fine with coach Steve Edwards Jr.
Edwards estimated his team would be somewhere between the mid 50s and low 60s in terms of player turnout, a little bump up from years past and with a rugged opening four games, that added depth could be needed. But the start to the season is a long way away and Monday morning the team was making its first strides toward that point with plenty of experience and youth mixed together on both sides of the ball.
“We’re operating on some pretty high spirits, but it’s the first practice on the first day — we have a ton to do, a ton to work on,” Edwards said. “We’re thankful we have a couple of extra two-a-days this year.
“I’m excited. It’s a good bunch of boys and they had a good summer, a good offseason and they work hard just like everybody else. Everyone is happy this time of year; we’re all undefeated.”
For how long relies on a group of fairly experienced skill players and a group of relatively inexperienced players up front.
Grant Wells, a first-team all-state selection at punter a year ago and a dual-threat weapon at quarterback, will orchestrate things in this, his junior season. He threw for 2,267 yards, ran for 502 yards and accounted for 35 touchdowns as the Patriots went 8-4, falling in the second round of the playoffs to eventual-champion Martinsburg.
Wells, already with Division I offers from Marshall and Charlotte, said that in his third season, it’s time for him to assume control of the team.
“Being a leader, I think that’s going to be a big thing this year,” Wells said. “I’m not much of a vocal guy, but being a leader this year is one of my biggest priorities. Getting these guys up and ready every day.”
“We’re looking for more of a leadership role, for him to be more vocal and take charge. It’s time to take that step,” Edwards said. “If you’re going to play at that next level, those are things you’re looking for, guys that are going to take charge, guys that are going to be the first ones in a drill or get the drill started. You can’t just set the tone by stats or being the starter or by newspaper articles. They’ve got to see you do it.”
Wells will be joined in the backfield again by running backs Jonathan McClung and Aidan Johnson and the three represented GW’s leading rushers a year ago with McClung rolling up 887 yards and six touchdowns and Johnson adding 674 yards and three scores.
Leading receiver Darnell Brooks (54 catches, 1,010 yards, 15 touchdowns) is gone and a top target for Wells is one of a few things GW will be trying to find as practice continues over the next three-plus weeks. Ryan Thomas is a name both Edwards and Wells mentioned and he is the Patriots’ leading returning receiver after hauling in 31 passes for 531 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.
But Edwards said there will be plenty of athletes capable of doing damage offensively including Jaquan Hall, Logan Leeber, Brent Cummings, Isaiah Mason, Jack Grimm, John Fenwick, Dakota Cosby and Buffalo transfer Owen Tillis, who has made a big impression already this summer.
Another goal is to solidify an offensive line that lost four starters from a year ago and is breaking in multiple new faces.
“I think I’ve got guys that will be scrappy and if we can just get ran over slowly, we should have a chance,” Edwards said.
For the players that are back, last year’s final stanza, a 34-0 defeat handed out by the Bulldogs, should provide a bar to stride for and lessons to learn from as the coming days inch closer to an opening date at South Charleston.
“These kids anymore, they read a lot and they see a lot of social media, but when you get to live it and see what really good is, it gives you something to shoot for,” Edwards said. “You know where the bar is set. It’s not just lip service. You’ve seen it and you know what it looks like.”
“Playing the state champion was difficult but it was a good learning experience,” Wells added. “That was the best team I’ve ever played. I think that being under our belt, that’s going to help us this year knowing we can’t play anyone tougher than them.”
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Hurricane coach Jeremy Taylor was still a bit groggy on Monday afternoon as he recovered from a midnight practice the night before.
“I feel like I’ve got the flu or had an all-nighter or something,” Taylor said. “Going to sleep at 3 a.m. is not ideal.”
As for the practice, Taylor said about 60 players came out and while that total is a little lower than recent seasons, he said the “right 60” is in the fold as the Redskins try to build from a berth into the second round of the playoffs a year ago.
Bo Adkins, a baseball player at the school, is out for his first year of football and Taylor said the speedster could find a home as a complementary wideout to go alongside Dakota Williams and South Charleston transfer Curon Cordon.
Who will throw the ball to them is something Taylor said will sort itself out over the next few weeks with Austin Womack and St. Albans transfer Nathan Roy battling it out for the job.