NORTH EAST — The sun was beginning to set on a recent Rising Sun football practice and the Tigers’ ground-and-pound offense was still on the field running play after play in preparation for an upcoming scrimmage.
Along the far side, five offensive linemen and two tight ends dig into the torn up grass, shoulder to shoulder, and wait for the center to hike the ball. There’s pre-snap motion, a tight end shifts, the wide receiver goes in motion and in the blink of an eye, the entire offensive front is realigned.
That’s when the ball is snapped, the quarterback faking a handoff to the running back before burying the ball into the chest of the fullback, who takes the carry and knifes through a gap on the right side. He gallops into the secondary with the ball tucked neatly against his worn orange and white practice jersey.
There’s no defenders on the field — this is purely an offensive drill — and as soon as the rusher returns to his teammates, the frontline bends down, the quarterback settles in under center and the Tigers prepare to execute another page from the playbook.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Welcome to another year under head coach Clem Vaughan, whose Wing-T offense a season ago rushed for over 3,300 yards, delivered the most wins for the program since 2006 and nearly resulted in a trip to the postseason.
Back on the Rising Sun sideline for a second straight autumn, Vaughan hopes his team can keep improving. The reigning All-County Coach of the Year, who took over the program last season after a five-year hiatus, helped guide the Tigers to seven victories just one year after the school won one game.
“They’re carrying themselves with a little bit of a swagger, a little more moxy, and you can tell at practice. Let’s see if it can translate,” said Vaughan, whose team missed qualifying for last year’s ultra-competitive 2A East Region playoffs by one game. “They’re just trying to be better. That’s all these kids are doing. They’re just focused on winning more games. If they can’t, they just want to be better. That’s all they’re focused on day to day. Let’s compete all season long.”
Returning All-County guard Joey Husfelt, a senior, will anchor an offensive line that intends to bully opposing defenses and pile up the points. The biggest loss will be in the backfield, where senior Noah Boyd, who rushed for 1,849 yards and 27 touchdowns a year ago, will miss a bulk of the schedule recovering from an injury suffered during lacrosse season.
Several new faces have taken over spots on the O-line and in the backfield, but Vaughan hopes for success as his offensive playbook continues to take hold.
“It’s like they never missed a beat. They’ve definitely bought into the system. We’re worlds ahead of where we were last year, so we’re pleased with what’s been going on,” Vaughan said. “The linemen are coming together and it’s looking pretty good.
“If the offensive line isn’t churning people away, we’re not doing anything. To me, I always make them feel special. They’re not getting the yards, they’re not getting the accolades, so I make them feel that way. They know they’re the most important thing. They’re the cog.”
Husfelt remembers the challenge of learning Vaughan’s playbook ahead of last year. There were hiccups early in the season as Rising Sun dropped two of its first three games, but responded by winning six of its final contests to capture the Susquehanna Division Championship.
“It was new. I’d never seen this offense before, so it was new getting used to but he dumbed it down for us, so to say, so we could run this offense a lot better. This year, we’ve got something else going, so we’re building on the little stuff,” Husfelt explained. “It’s so much better. We’ve got everything rolling.”
Said Rising Sun senior safety Drew Opp: “It’s hard to play this offense because it forces you to man up and be willing to stick your nose in there and make some tackles. It’s a lot of misdirection, so you can’t really follow the ball that much.”
Husfelt echoed his head coach when asked about expectations.
“We’re trying not to get too much of a big head, we’re trying not to be cocky, we’re just trying to improve from last year. That’s all our focus is,” Husfelt said. “We went 7-3, now let’s try to go 8-2 or 9-0 this year, top-four spot in the playoffs, you know? Trying to just improve.”
The defense, which found itself in a series of shootouts throughout the year, settled down to allow just 19 points over its final two games, including giving up just two scores to previously undefeated Harford Tech in the final home game of the year. The visiting Cobras entered that contest averaging 45.5 points per game.
On a muddy Saturday afternoon in November, the Tigers held them to 12 points and snapped Harford Tech’s 18-game regular season winning streak.
“It’s pretty electric. We all know what we can do and we’ve been working all summer,” Opp said.
The offense may also receive a mid-season boost in the form of Boyd, who launched himself into the Player of the Year discussion with a massive junior campaign, including a Week 8 contest in which he carried 22 times for 317 yards and five touchdowns in a blowout win over Patterson Mill.
“Don’t count him out,” warned Vaughan. “He won’t be there Week 1. He’s in great shape, he’s been running everything with us, he’s just not cleared for contact. We’re crossing our fingers he’ll be back, but we’ve got a plan and we’re moving forward without him.”
Senior Justin Brooks, junior Cade Eyman and All-County boys’ lacrosse Player of the Year Ben Ehrhart, a senior, are all expected to carry the ball for Rising Sun behind returning quarterback Aydon Brown.
“Next guy up and away we go,” Vaughan said. “
The first test will be Week 1 against Cambridge-South Dorchester, the No. 2 seed in last year’s 1A East playoff bracket.
“This year, we’re more hungry than last year to make the playoffs. We’ve just got to show out, come out and win every game,” Opp said. “Our confidence is through the roof, but we know we need to stay grounded and just keep going.”
Follow Jordan Schatz on Twitter: @Jordan_Whig