In some respects, George Washington had a historic season last year. Just not one the Patriots want to remember.
GW turned in a 4-6 record that was three spots shy of reaching the Class AAA playoffs. The Patriots had become synonymous with the postseason, having earned playoff berths 10 of the previous 11 seasons.
And the real culprit for GW was its defense — especially the run defense. The Patriots allowed 36.8 points per game, their worst showing since giving up 38.7 points per game in 1993, which was an 0-10 season and part of a forgettable 24-game losing streak. Even when GW went 1-9 in 2005 — its worst record in the past 20 years — it only allowed an average of 27.8 points.
Opponents feasted on GW’s run defense a year ago, cranking out a little more than 311 yards per game. Even in games the Patriots managed to win, like a 39-36 nail-biter against Riverside, the numbers weren’t good. Riverside’s Caden Easterling carried 45 times in that game for 410 yards and four touchdowns.
Thus, Job 1 for George Washington as it opened preseason practice Monday was shoring up its defense, most notably the run defense. That line play goes hand in hand with GW’s other tough task — improving its own running game, which contributed just 113.6 yards per game last fall.
“We’ll try to get the run game going and try to stop the run,’’ said Steve Edwards Jr., who begins his 24th season as Patriots coach. “Our bigger concern is that we’ve got to be more physical. If we’re not any more physical than we have been of late, then we can’t expect improvement. Being mentally tough and more physical than we were — those are things that are real important to us, plus developing a running game.
“We’ll be a little bit bigger than we have been. We’re still a little young up front, but we have decent size. I’ve said a hundred times already that we’ll look a little bit more like a football team when we take the field. Certainly not Spring Valley size or anything like that. But better than we have been. Those our our real concerns.’’
Edwards hopes his team’s recent inability to run or stop the run was just a blip on the radar. After all, GW’s line play has been exemplary much of the past decade — the Patriots have sported the leading rusher in the Mountain State Athletic Conference four times over the last eight seasons (Ryan Switzer twice, NuNu Miller, Draven Riffe).
“We think we can [improve],’’ Edwards said. “It’s all about personnel. We’ve graduated some good kids lately, and graduated a lot of size. You can check the rosters from years ago and from the last two years, when the guys who were carrying the ball were a lot bigger than the guys blocking for them.
“I haven’t been able to put the whole group together [recently] — a really big line, really good skills kids and good speed. Now we’ve had bits and pieces of things. When we lost the bits and pieces, there in turn we struggled a little bit. The kids tried real hard and did what they could do. We were a little outmanned a lot of times. Hopefully now we’re not as outsized as we have been. And that goes with the physicality part of it.’’
Edwards recalls some matchup problems the Patriots faced against Spring Valley the past two years, when the Timberwolves featured 6-foot-6, 315-pound lineman Doug Nester, who’s now playing at Virginia Tech.
“You can be as physical as you want,’’ Edwards said, “but if you’re 5-9 and 175 pounds blocking that Nester boy, it’s not a good matchup. And that kid was probably one of the toughest kids on my team. You can only do with what you’ve got. Hopefully we’ll be a little bit bigger and a little bit better.’’
The Patriots do have some solid pieces to the puzzle returning, especially with receivers Alex Mazelon and Isaac Isabell. Mazelon led MSAC receivers last season with 58 catches for 860 yards and 10 touchdowns. Isabell also doubles as a talented cornerback and GW has other experienced pass catchers like Brayden McCallister and Luke Grimm.
Who will be getting them the ball? A good question, according to Edwards. GW has four players vying for the starting job left vacant when four-year regular Grant Wells left for Marshall.
One of those four candidates has already carved out a name for himself in the Kanawha Valley. R.T. Alexander, now a junior and the son of former South Charleston and WVU running back Robert Alexander, has returned from Georgia, where he served as a backup last season. As a freshman at St. Albans in 2017, R.T. Alexander threw for 1,998 yards and 12 TDs while playing for coach Scott Tinsley, who is in his second season as an offensive assistant coach at GW. Alexander was named Gazette-Mail Kanawha Valley Rookie of the Year in 2017.
“He’ll jump right in and be competing for the job,’’ Edwards said of Alexander. “We’ve got four quarterbacks in camp, and the other three are really pushing him.’’
A pair of sophomores who backed up Wells last season — Brady Adams and Brody Thompson — returns under center, and are joined in the quarterback mix by freshman Hayden Hatfield.
GW’s top returning linemen are seniors Andrew Preast (6-3, 240) and Benji Adkins (6-1, 205). The leading tackler back is junior linebacker Michael Ray, who had 46 solo stops and 48 assists, including 81/2 tackles for lost yardage.