Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a multi-part series on the Centreville High School football team as it attempts to defend its 2013 state title. Part one was printed in the May 22 Fairfax County Times.
For most high school football teams, July is a time to take a deep breath. School is out, and players are left to relax or run through individual workouts without coaches barking in their ears.
For several Centreville Wildcats, July was one of the most important months of their lives. College futures were unofficially laid out with verbal commitments, five of them to Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision schools. In a decorated senior class that could have 10-12 future college football players in its ranks, only running back Xavier Nickens-Yzer has yet to choose from a list of Division I schools that is likely to grow in the coming months.
Centreville’s most celebrated commitment came from senior standout AJ Turner, who pledged his allegiance to South Carolina during a live ESPNU telecast on July 10. The first team all-state running back said he ultimately chose the Gamecocks ahead of Michigan State for a number of reasons, among them the lure of playing for a legendary coach in a legendary conference. His excitement on the practice-field sidelines these days is uncontainable, even with his right arm in a sling.
Just a few hours before heading to the hospital for wrist surgery on Wednesday, Turner stood on the field with a smile on his face, happy to answer questions about his senior season at Centreville and his future at South Carolina. He wasn’t too concerned about the minor operation coming his way, one precipitated by a lingering wrist injury that prompted a doctor’s recommendation for surgery last week.
Turner hopes to recover in time for Centreville’s home opener against Washington Catholic Athletic Conference power Gonzaga on Sept. 5. His teammates hope so, too, eager to see the speedster who had 1,697 all-purpose yards and 32 touchdowns last year return to lead them again in 2014.
Turner remains grounded in his preparation for another big high school season, but the coming rigors of the SEC linger in the back of his mind. One South Carolina coach told him last summer that the Gamecocks prefer to recruit running backs who weigh at least 225 pounds; Turner weighed 170. The coach told him they’d take another look at him if he promised to get to 180. He did just that, then embarked on a sensational junior season that eventually prompted South Carolina to hand him his first scholarship offer the day before the state championship game in December.
Now Turner weighs about 190, and South Carolina coaches have encouraged him to keep his weight up as best he can before a strict training regimen bulks him up even more next year.
One of the coaches keeping tabs on his Northern Virginia recruit is Steve Spurrier, who gets on the phone with Turner regularly to talk about almost anything but football. Spurrier associates the kid with Florida as much as he does Virginia, since Turner grew up in Tallahassee as a Florida Gators fan before moving to Fairfax three years ago.
Turner says he didn’t realize Spurrier used to coach the Gators until recently. He also says the Ol’ Ball Coach is as entertaining as they come, largely due to that famous accent of his.
“He’s just a really funny guy naturally,” Turner said. “He doesn’t even know he’s being funny. I just laugh.”
Spurrier and company promised Turner playing time in his first year at South Carolina, yet another reason he sided with the Gamecocks. Turner isn’t interested in redshirting his freshman season, instead feeling he’ll be ready to get carries and return kicks right away.
“I’m all for getting better and stuff like that, but I want the experience now,” Turner said. “I’m on a scholarship for a reason, and I want to be able to prove myself to my future teammates and coaches that I can do this.”
Another Centreville player out to prove himself is senior Justin Skule, the Wildcats’ other guy bound for the SEC next year. A 6-foot-6, 305-pound lineman who helped pave Turner’s way, Skule didn’t start raking in college offers until well after his junior season. Scouts liked his potential, but they weren’t quite sure he had the mean streak needed to thrive at the next level.
Hard work in the winter put those doubts to rest, and solid performances at spring camps opened new doors for the hulking wall at left tackle. In mid-June Skule attended a camp at Vanderbilt, then toured the campus the next day. Centreville defensive coordinator Adam Neff, a former South County coach, sat Skule down with former South County linebacker Oren Burks, who will be entering his redshirt freshman season at Vanderbilt this fall.
“Oren just talked to me about how he liked the new coaching staff and the campus lifestyle and everything,” said Skule, who ultimately chose Vanderbilt over Virginia. “So he actually played a huge role in my decision.”
Vanderbilt coaches were particularly impressed with Skule’s quick footwork and strong work ethic, but they encouraged him to work on keeping his pad level lower on his blocks this season. Centreville coaches, meantime, expect Skule to be considerably more physical this year.
“I think this year he’s going to really turn into a bruiser and really start beating some people up, and I think that’s going to take his game to the next level,” Centreville coach Chris Haddock said. “He’s going to be able to physically dominate people.”
Skule isn’t paying much heed to all the newfound attention surrounding him. The soft-spoken big man knows his team’s success this year depends on its ability to stay committed to the process in practice.
“We don’t get too caught up in it because we know if we do then something will slip up and cost us big time,” Skule said. “It’s cool to get the attention and everything, but we just come out and work hard everyday and act like nothing else is different than last year.”
Joe Ferrick isn’t getting caught up in all the attention, either. The senior quarterback is too busy commanding the attention of his teammates, who have quickly gained respect for a leader without a single start under his belt.
Centreville’s new signal caller spent most of his youth football years as a pudgy linebacker who loved the thrill of bringing down ball carriers. But when his older brother, Mitch, led the Wildcats to the state championship game in 2011, he decided to work toward becoming Centreville’s quarterback of the future.
Ferrick’s position switch was facilitated by a growth spurt that put him above six feet his sophomore year. His father, Rich Ferrick, a football coach at Centreville since 1989, asked former Herndon coach Brian Day to start working with his son one-on-one to develop his throwing mechanics. Rich Ferrick said he was surprised to see Mitch, now entering his junior season at quarterback for Guilford College, work so diligently with his little brother in the offseason, throwing for hours on end and imparting all the knowledge at his disposal. He wasn’t surprised to see Joe pick everything up so quickly.
“The thing about Joe is he’s always been extremely confident about himself to a point where you might think sometimes he’s a little cocky,” Rich Ferrick said. “When he wants something bad enough, he’s going to go out and get it. I think the greatest attribute that’s helping him now is his leadership ability.”
Joe Ferrick received plenty of playing time as Scott Walter’s backup last year, taking advantage of an explosive offense that would often hand second-half substitutes huge halftime leads. Still, it was Ferrick’s assertive sideline demeanor that drew respect from his peers.
“If Charles and Xavier and AJ and all them, if they had any questions about the offense, I made sure I knew the answer and could help them out with that even though I wasn’t playing,” Ferrick said. “When they came off the field, if they had a question about something that happened, I could be there and answer it.”
Ferrick isn’t the tough-running athlete that Scott Walter was, but he’s got a nice arm and displays the kind of heady decision-making needed to operate Centreville’s tricky Wing-T offense. Anyone who says Ferrick will act as more serviceable plug than game-changer, though, will draw a firm argument from the quarterback’s coach.
“I would disagree with that wholeheartedly,” Haddock said. “I think Joe is going to step in and do more than just a functional job. I think he’s going to be above average. Of the quarterbacks I’ve had here I would rate him right up in the top.”
By all accounts Ferrick has always been an extremely competitive kid. Rich blames his wife, who played soccer and ran track in high school. He could just as easily blame himself, or his son, Mitch, or his oldest daughter, Jessica, a former softball player at Marshall University.
No matter where it comes from, though, Ferrick’s inner drive makes him the perfect newcomer to assume the crushing responsibilities that come with a state title defender returning 15 starters.
“You’ve got to take control of the huddle and make sure you demand everybody’s attention all the time,” Ferrick said. “You’ve got to be adaptive and ready to change. I’m ready for it.”