As he rolls into Year 3 of his makeover at St. Albans, coach Nick Watts hopes the improvement starts to show up in the win column.
If it’s going to happen, the Red Dragons are going to do it with an intriguing blend of heavy experience at some positions and youthful potential at others.
St. Albans, coming off back-to-back 1-9 seasons, has already made one terrific addition in the offseason with a gleaming new FieldTurf playing surface at Crawford Field, which is set to debut with a Sept. 11 home opener against South Charleston.
And with eight returning starters on defense and seven on offense, the Red Dragons might have enough moxie to make their move.
Their offensive line is certainly stacked with experience, as four starters return, led by senior tackle Andrew Vickers (6-foot-4, 331 pounds). Others back along the line include senior Trevor Compton (6-4, 268) at center, senior Dakota Snyder (6-3, 329) at guard and junior Cooper Pauley (6-2, 217) at tackle. The other starter at guard will be either senior Ashton Stokes (6-0, 215) or junior Ty Roy (6-3, 238).
The receiving corps also has returning starters in seniors Jaimelle Claytor (6-4, 204) and Bones Johnson (6-1, 150). The versatile Claytor, also a basketball standout, missed five games with an injury last season, but averaged 8 yards per carry and 24 per reception with four touchdowns in a hybrid runner-receiver role. Johnson started as a sophomore.
Some of the other skill spots, though, will be in the hands of newcomers.
Freshman Peyton Brown (5-11, 160) won out in a five-way battle to be the starting quarterback following a standout season at South Charleston Middle School. The H-back is sophomore Ashton Spangler (5-10, 200) and the tailback is senior Jaxon Holbert (5-9, 204), one of the team’s top tacklers at linebacker last year. Neither Holbert nor Spangler had a carry in 2019.
Two seniors, Justice Warner (6-2, 180) and Nickel Roy (6-2, 203), lead the candidates at tight end. Warner served as the team’s quarterback last season. When SA plays with a slot receiver instead of a tight end, it’s sophomore Michael Hindman (6-1, 176).
Watts has confidence in the young bucks he’s going to line up at some of the skill positions, especially Brown.
“We’ve been impressed a lot with Peyton Brown,’’ Watts said. “He’s a kid that has a lot of [talent]. Watching him play quarterback, everything is really smooth. It seems like he’s been doing it for a long time. He throws a good ball and he’s athletic — he can run. He’s not a big kid, so we probably won’t run him a ton, but he’s a good athlete who plays a little bit older than he is.’’
Six members of the front seven on defense are all returning starters, with Holbert at linebacker the ringleader. An All-Kanawha Valley player last season, Holbert averaged nearly 11 tackles per game and had 141/2 stops for lost yardage. Junior Kam Wells (5-11, 235) is another returnee at linebacker, with the final spot there going to either senior Shane Young (6-3, 185) or sophomore Cooper Lane-Sturgill (6-3, 197).
On the line, all four started last season — seniors Vickers and Snyder and sophomores Elijah Edge (5-11, 200) and Dom Hamler (6-2, 370). Claytor and Johnson return at cornerback, and the safeties are Hindman and senior Ametrice Hall (5-9, 155), a transfer from Maryland.
Watts feels that one of the keys this season is mental toughness to go along with the physical nature of the game.
“I think right now our biggest focus,’’ Watts said, “is getting the kids to understand they need to believe they can win. We’re preaching that all the time, and one of our top slogans is: Win your rep. We try to tell them just don’t go out and want to survive everything. Go out and want to win, and not just survive.
“Against the best teams in our league, we’re just in survival mode, survive the game. We need to transition to: Go out and win — every time you go out. It’s a big focus for us, being tough.’’