BERRYVILLE — With just two returning starters on defense in 2018, the Clarke County football team saw its average points per game jump nearly five full points to 21.7.

The Eagles feel good about their chances of getting back to their typically stingy ways in 2019.

“We’re a lot older, we’re more aware, and we’re stronger than we were last year,” Clarke County senior lineman Grayson Aylestock said. “We’re just a little better.”

“We know what to expect,” Clarke County senior linebacker/blocking back Cody Sowers said.

Thursday was the first day of practice for Virginia High School League teams, and Clarke County was the only one of the five local schools to practice at its high school on Thursday. Sherando (Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria) and Millbrook (Powhatan School in Boyce) each started practicing off-campus Thursday and will not start working out at their schools until Monday. Handley and James Wood will hold their first practices at their respective schools on Monday.

Clarke County’s defense had respectable numbers in 2018 — the Eagles also gave up 317.3 yards per game — but that yardage figure was still nearly 60 yards per game more than 2017.

The Eagles will need to be stout on defense to contend in a revamped Bull Run District that features two teams that advanced further in the playoffs than Clarke County did last year. The Eagles went a solid 7-4 and lost to Buffalo Gap in the Region 2B quarterfinals in their 12th straight playoff appearance, but newcomers East Rockingham (Class 2 state semifinalists) and Luray (Region 2B semifinalists) all made deeper runs.

The Clarke County coaching staff likes a group that features six returning starters on defense, including four who earned All-Bull Run District honors in Aylestock (63 tackles), Sowers (area-best 131 tackles), linebacker Sam Brumback (101 tackles), and defensive back Danny Lyman (41 tackles, four interceptions).

“We were young everywhere except for the secondary last year,” Clarke County defensive coordinator Casey Childs said. “Knowing that so many guys are back is a good feeling. Last year it was a lot of teaching, a lot of learning on the fly, game to game and situation to situation. This year, they’re more apt to get ready for those situations before they really happen. We’re definitely ahead of the curve compared to this time last year.”

While the Eagles possess their typical strength — the team has more players in their Iron Eagle (bench, deadlift, squat, hang clean) 1,000-pound and 1,100-pound weight clubs than last year — they feel like the quickness they’re displaying on the field is a particularly noticeable improvement from last year.

“We’ll probably a little more mobile, more agile so to speak than we have been in the past, which is good, especially defensively,” Clarke County head coach Chris Parker said. “Once we’re with them longer and we get the pads on, that’s when we’ll get the true evaluation, but we’re pretty happy with what they showed today.”

Childs believes the Eagles can put a lot of pressure on offenses with their speed.

“I think our secondary’s going to be really good,” Childs said. “And I think when we go into our sub-packages of our nickel look and our Okie look, the guys we can put on the field are going to be able to move and cover people, so we’ll hopefully be able to get pressure with some of the guys we’ve got.”

Clarke County expects Aylestock to set the tone up front.

“He can be a force on defense,” Parker said. “He had a great year last year, and we’re expecting more of that this year.”

Aylestock said he’s worked on being more agile this year, and the 6-foot-3, 250-pound player has improved his hang clean from 225 pounds last year to 275 this year.

“I’m where I want to be,” Aylestock said.

The Eagle defense will look to aid an offense that brings back five starters, including area rushing leader Peyton Rutherford (1,661 yards, 25 touchdowns) and quarterback Colby Childs (1,016 yards, 12 TDs, one interception).

Clarke County is also in a pretty good place with its roster situation. The Eagles had 70 players practicing on Thursday, including 43 varsity (grades 10 through 12). Last year’s Clarke County team only had 33 varsity players. Parker said the Eagles did a good job of recruiting, but he added that there were simply more interested players.

Parker thinks it will help going forward that eighth-graders can no longer play Little League football in Clarke County. Eighth-graders who want to play football will have to participate in the Clarke County school system, which means they can get acclimated to the Eagles’ program sooner.

Parker thought Thursday’s practice was good, and everyone was happy with how it ended. New starting kicker Kellan Dalton prevented the Eagles from closing practice with sprints by keeping the ball between two houses far off in the distance that couldn’t have been more than 20 feet apart. He did this despite Childs putting pressure on him by saying former kicker Nick Bahamonde always converted those kicks, and having a whistle blown to freeze him as he approached the ball the first time.

“He was invited to a Kohl’s kicking camp in Wisconsin,” Parker said. “He’s going to be a weapon not only on field goals, but on kickoffs. Anytime you can make the other team start on the 20 [with a touchback], that’s a huge advantage to have defensively.”

Clarke County opens it season at home on Aug. 30 against Buffalo Gap.

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at

rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.com

Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1

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