The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 5, 2013

Are you ready? Football practice starts today

By Cam Huffman
Sports Editor

BECKLEY — If you’re reading this at work, head home. I give you permission.

OK, so my column probably won’t work as an excuse for your boss, and I really don’t need a bunch of phone calls about how I impacted a company’s production, so I guess I’ll have to take that back. Sit down and get back to work.

But shouldn’t today be a holiday? It’s the first day of high school football practice. The season many anticipate all year will be here in a few short weeks, and the 2013 campaign should be just as entertaining as the pregame tailgates.

With the first Friday night under the lights just 25 days away, here are five stories I’ll be watching as practice begins and the bands get their halftime shows in order.

1) New coaches — Several schools will be breaking in new coaches this fall, and it’s always interesting to see how things are different. New coaches sometimes mean changes in schemes, uniforms, personnel and, perhaps most importantly, attitude.

At Summers County, the task for new head coach Nate Tanner will be to continue what Josh Houchins started. The Bobcats had a strong club last year, and they made history, going 7-3 and making it into the playoffs just two years after a winless season. With many of the same players back, Tanner likely won’t change much. He’ll be looking simply to take the next step and get some postseason wins.

Westside’s new coach, Larry Cook, knows the program well. He played at Oceana and was an offensive coordinator for the Renegades. He’s spent seven years as an assistant, and now he’s ready to see what he can do with a program of his own. Will this be a playoff season for Westside?

John Mustain, likewise, certainly understands the culture at James Monroe. He’s coached baseball, softball, girls basketball and boys basketball, finding some level of success in each of them, and now he’s ready to try his hand at football. The Mavericks have a strong tradition on the gridiron, and Mustain will be charged with erasing the taste of a couple of sub-par seasons and returning James Monroe football to the top.

Independence might be the most interesting situation of them all. Scott Cuthbert has been a fixture in Coal City, and his style is the only one most Patriot fans know.

His departure, though, brought about a difficult offseason that included the hiring and firing of Chuck Cooper and then the surprise hire of Chris Vicars to take control. He’s only been on the job a few weeks, so he’ll have his hands full trying to get to know his players and build a connection.

Vicars, though, has won big at his other stops. Can he do the same with the Patriots?

2) Second-year coaches — Year No. 2 is often more interesting to watch than the first. It’s sort of like building a house, and most of the time first-year coaches only have time to put down the foundation. The work that’s done the next couple of years is what will truly define the program.

At Greenbrier East, Ray Lee seems to have that foundation in place. His players were speaking, and playing, with a new sense of confidence last season. The Spartans picked up some solid wins, including one over a talented Shady Spring squad, and they were competitive almost every time out, even on the road at Huntington against one of the state’s top teams.

Still, 3-7 isn’t anywhere close to what Lee wanted. The foundation might have been solid, but the walls fell down during the first storm. He didn’t expect to just be competitive, he expected to win. It will be fun to watch and see if he can turn some of those almost wins into solid Ws and build a house that will make residents of The Greenbrier’s Sporting Club jealous.

Randy Peek had some major struggles in his first year leading the Princeton Tigers, but he came onto the scene late and had very little time to put things in place the way he wanted. He didn’t even get the job until late July. With an entire offseason to plan, it should be exciting to see what the Tigers will look like this time around.

3) New quarterbacks — Most of the area’s top signal callers from a year ago are gone. Woodrow Wilson’s Andrew Johnson and Shady Spring’s Adam Weeks kept the bands busy playing the fight song, but Raleigh County’s two Class AAA schools are now faced with the task of replacing two of the best in the history of their respective programs.

The Flying Eagles will turn to Brent Osborne, who really impressed me in his limited action last season. He’s athletic — although not as athletic as Johnson, because few are — he’s smart and it’s obvious he cares about the game. His progression should be something to watch closely.

At Shady, it will be up to Timmy Culicerto — head coach Vince Culicerto’s nephew — to fill Weeks’ big shoes.

The Tigers’ offense is predicated on having somebody who can sling the ball around and find the open receiver — either downfield or at the line of scrimmage. If the eye-popping offensive numbers that this team has displayed the last few years are to continue, Culicerto, who played at Woodrow Wilson last season, will have to play with confidence and not be afraid to make a mistake.

4) Fayetteville — I hate to single out one team, but the Pirates’ story is one you just have to watch. Fayetteville has a tradition of putting strong football teams on the field, and 2012 was supposed to be no exception. The Pirates were picked in the Top 10 of the preseason polls.

What followed, though, was something nobody predicted. Not only did Fayetteville miss out on the postseason, it failed to win a single game.

Was that a fluke? Will the program return to form, or was 2012 a look into the future? I can’t wait to find out.

5) Levi Cook — Again, focusing on one player with so many talented athletes around the area might be a mistake, but Cook is impossible to ignore.

First, he’s 6-foot-11 and weighs in at nearly 300 pounds. He’s about as easy to overlook at the Jolly Green Giant crashing a party in Smurf Village.

But he’s also a WVU basketball verbal commitment, which also adds intrigue to the story. How will his athleticism relate to football? Could football really be his sport? Is there any chance playing football could negatively impact his basketball career? What if he gets hurt? What’s Bob Huggins think about this development? How will Liberty head coach Jeff Alexander utilize a 6-11 tight end? Will defensive players run to the locker room when they’re matched up one-on-one with him?

The answers will come, and that’s why we watch.

Is it game day yet?

— E-mail: chuffman

@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.