New-look Storm off to good start
One good thing about unpaid semi-pro football players: You can't lock them out.
On the other hand, you can't make them come to practice either.
That was the root of the problem for the Virginia Storm last season, when they went 3-9 in their first year as a Martinsville-based team.
"I'm a product of Magna Vista, and that's just something I'm not used to," said lineman Hugo Hughes.
"It was real frustrating," Storm coach Chris Weeks said. "You game plan and game plan on what you want to accomplish in a practice, and when you show up and you only have a fourth of the guys there, you have to rethink your strategy on the spot. It slows your momentum on what you're trying to build off of.'"
If the Storm want to be more competitive this season in the Central Carolina Football League, then showing up to practice will also be the root of the solution. And Weeks said this year's team understands that notion.
"The difference from last year is that the guys are focused, and everybody's understanding we've got the same goal right now, that we go out and win a championship," Weeks said.
Already, the Storm are off to a better start than a year ago. They won their opener 34-16 Saturday night at the Smith River Sports Complex - in last season's home opener, they were drilled 48-0 by the Carolina Eagles, who went on to go undefeated and win the CCFL title.
After that game, several players noticed the number of "suits" - as in, coaches - on the Eagles' sideline. At the time, the Storm had just one: Weeks.
So Weeks addressed that issue as well this year, adding Tony Moon as the offensive coordinator and making Magna Vista High School graduate Donnie Wilkerson a full-time line coach.
"Having those extra coaches on hand definitely helps out, because it's more of a player-per-coach ratio," Weeks said. "It helps keep things going."
Moon, who has more than 35 years of coaching experience at the youth and high school levels, Weeks said, will run a multiple-I formation look with elements of spread. It's the same offense as last year, but with a few more wrinkles courtesy of Moon.
"Basically, the offense I've always ran was his offense anyway," Weeks said. "There will be some changes to the offense, mainly because he's a little bit more in-depth into the offense than I am."
Kenny Perry, or "KP" as his teammates call him, will once again take the majority of the snaps at quarterback. But Perry, a coach at Bassett High School and easily one of the best athletes on the team, will also line up at receiver and get some carries, Weeks said - like the 90-yard touchdown run he had Saturday.
But most of the carries will go to returning tailback B.J. Jumper, and Weeks said he will also insert linebacker Lamar "Juicy" Brown at tailback on occasion.
Where Weeks sees the most offensive improvement, however, is on the line and at wide receiver.
The Storm added several impressive rookie receivers, Weeks said, including former U.Va.-Wise player Stephon Jennings.
"We should be a lot more balanced offensively than what we were last year," Weeks said. "We were running the ball pretty good last year, so we should be able to balance that out with the receivers we have."
The offensive line, anchored by Hughes, will be "a lot bigger" and "more athletic" than last year, Weeks said. And on top of that, the team's linemen are more committed.
"That is the key," Weeks said. "Once the guys see that we have the big guys coming out, and coming to practice, that really motivates the whole team to really get out there and want to work hard and get better."
The offense was a bit sluggish in the opening win. The only offensive touchdown Saturday was the 90-yard run by Perry; the defense scored three TDs and forced three safeties to account for most of the scoring.
"I think our biggest problem was our timing between the quarterback and wide receivers was a little off," Weeks said, adding that the Storm dropped three touchdown passes.
"There was times we just weren't on the same page," Perry said. "We just need to practice that a lot more."
But three defensive touchdowns, three safeties and five forced turnovers - including three interceptions - can't be a bad sign for the defense.
"Our defense is only gonna get better from this point," Weeks said. "I did not expect my defense to come out that well and perform, but we really had some rookies that came in and stepped up and played beyond the expectations."
The linebackers will be the strength of the Storm's 3-5 defense, which will be run by Weeks. In addition to Brown returning at linebacker, Weeks also likes rookies Terrence Cooper, a GW-Danville High School product, and Terrence Harris, of Dan River High School.
Perry will bring his athleticism to the secondary, but the unit will be anchored by Martinsville High School graduate Darian Dunbar, Weeks said.
Out of the 65 players on the opening-game roster, 25 played high school football in the Piedmont District and another went to Carlisle. And that's not counting another 13 players who signed with the team after they saw the Storm's win Saturday at the SRSC, Weeks said.
If his players show the commitment that was lacking a year ago, Weeks believes that turning a 3-9 record into a championship over the course of a year is not unrealistic.
"Even being 3-9 last year, six losses were three points or less," Weeks said. "You turn those games around, we easily could have been 9-3.
"I feel with the direction the team is focused on going right now, we easily could be a team that's contending for the championship."