The clock hits zero and the horn sounds, sending the boys in red and black on a frantic scamper from one drill to the next. New coaches greet them with new drills, their objectives wrapped in new philosophies and new schemes. Nothing feels the same on Herndon’s glimmering home turf, nor should it after the 1-9 season that looms in the background.
Presiding over the big changes is the biggest man on the field: Jeremiah Davis, a former Penn State lineman eager to ingrain his positive approach into his new team. At 6 foot 5, 320 pounds, the only thing bigger than Davis’s hulking physique might be his outsize personality, one that has his players smiling even as they teeter on the verge of exhaustion.
At 31, Davis brings a youthful exuberance that seems to infect everyone around him. But the former all-state defensive lineman at Annandale isn’t kidding around when it comes to the daunting project on his hands.
“We’re the weakest team in the best district,” Davis said. “We can’t be the doormat anymore.”
Herndon hired Davis in January to replace Brian Day, whose two wins in two seasons at the helm prompted a change in direction. In Davis the Hornets get a relatively inexperienced coach who led West Potomac to a 10-11 record in two seasons after serving as an assistant at Annandale for six years. But they also get a man with a vision, someone who believes his kids can excel in all phases of life.
“We talk about the longevity of the program and instilling things that last and having good men graduate from us,” Davis said. “That’s what we want to do in the long run. We’ll win some football games, but we want to make sure we’re taking care of the little things and being good people.”
Herndon’s success on the field this season will depend on its ability to master a new system. Like some other teams around the area, Davis is injecting the Hornets with an up-tempo pace on both sides of the ball, which explains the uptick in conditioning this offseason. The change is especially acute on offense, where Herndon’s traditional up-the-gut, I-formation attack will morph into the hurry-up, spread schemes so in vogue around the country these days.
“The offense that we’ll run this year is going to be something they’ve never seen before. It’s going to be dramatically different,” said Scott Davis, a linebackers coach who’s been around the Herndon program for over 20 years. “We won’t have a quarterback coming to the sideline, and we won’t be huddling on offense or defense. Everything is a much faster, quicker, more agile pace than we’ve had in the past.”
A spread offense requires capable athletes who can stretch defenses, and Davis believes he has the personnel to make it work. Leading the charge is senior tailback Lamik Bumbrey, an aggressive runner who led Conference 5 in rushing yards last season. Two weeks into preseason practice, Bumbrey has impressed his new coach with a willingness to embrace change, something not every gifted athlete is always eager to accept.
Standing next to Bumbrey in the shotgun is senior quarterback Ryan McLaughlin, a burly lefty whose stout frame and flowing mane make him look more like a linebacker than a signal caller. McLaughlin can chuck the ball “a country mile,” according to Davis, but his real value is the experience that comes with two seasons of starting under center. No one has welcomed Davis’s arrival more than McLaughlin, who hopes to benefit from the variety of run and pass plays in his new playbook.
“He’s awesome,” McLaughlin said. “All the guys have bought in to what he’s preaching to us. He’s really a family guy, so that makes it easy to want to win for him. We really like the changes he’s bringing. I think he’s taking this program in the right direction.”
McLaughlin will take cues from Chris Faircloth, a well-respected state champion head coach at Las Vegas High who retired and moved east before joining Davis’s staff this year. In addition to a reliable tandem in the backfield, Herndon’s new offensive coordinator will lean on a talented group of wide receivers. Senior Devin Goldsby, perhaps the team’s most athletic playmaker, will line up in the slot, while senior Conner Johnson will also look to wreak havoc in the air.
Defense remains a bigger question mark. Connor McLaughlin and David Im bring some experience back to the secondary, but linebacker Chip Bednarek is one of the few holdovers tasked with repairing a long-running Achilles heel: stopping the run.
“We’ve got a lot of improving to do in our toughness and tackling department,” said Davis, a former defensive end who lined up for Joe Paterno a decade ago. “Really you need confidence that you can put your body in front of another young man and take him down. The guys without that confidence don’t do a good job. We’re going to instill that confidence through drills and repetition, and we’re going to sort out the guys who really want to play and the guys that don’t.”
Herndon’s seasoned crop of seniors — many of whom have been playing varsity since their sophomore years — haven’t always been on the losing side of things. Their freshman season ended with a mark of 6-2, their only defeats coming to Centreville and Westfield.
Still, a defeatist culture has seeped through recent years of futility in the varsity ranks. Loss after loss instilled a feeling that when things went wrong, they would only continue to go wrong. This year, though, players and coaches feel like Davis is breathing new life into their sails.
“We come out here and have a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm,” said Aiden Vigil, the Hornets’ defensive line coach. “It’s just a matter of getting the guys to buy in and getting this thing rolling. All it takes is a couple wins and all that other stuff is going to be in the rearview mirror.”
Herndon has an opportunity to gain some much-needed momentum with a relatively soft early-season schedule that includes games against Mount Vernon, West Springfield and South Lakes. Davis hopes his squad can start strong and then steal a district contest or two to earn enough power points for a playoff berth.
“That’s how we’ve got to do it starting off,” Davis said. “We’ve got to win out-of-district games, and we want to be competitive in the district. We’ve got a long road to hoe, and we know it, but those are our stepping blocks.”