Airport coach Kirk Burnett is in unfamiliar territory as he enters his 10th season at his alma mater.
The Eagles are coming off a 2012 campaign that saw them finish with a 4-6 record and left out of the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
It came down to a combination of a few things in Burnett’s mind. First, Airport lacked a true breakaway threat on offense. Second, the schedule featured a number of teams enjoying successful seasons.
A.C. Flora, White Knoll and Strom Thurmond played in state semifinal games and return to the schedule. Swansea rebounded from several down seasons to be one of the state’s Class 3A elite teams.
“We really didn’t have the breakaway player we needed on offense last year,” Burnett said. “It was probably our worst year on offense in nine years. We didn’t have anybody that would scare you. We feel like we have some guys this year that can stretch the field and make some plays. Then it seemed like everybody we played had one of their best years when we were not at our best.”
The Eagles failed to score more than 40 points in a game last season for the first time since 2006, but they expect to have help on the way.
K.D. Jackson was the junior varsity quarterback last season and has the inside track to be the starter on Friday nights this fall. Jackson will have to hold off the challenges of senior Dylan Harrington and sophomore Josh Tucker in preseason camp.
Corey Bradley returns at running back after an injury-riddled 2012. The Eagles have not produced a 1,000 rusher in two seasons, but he could end that streak if he plays in every game. Dorian Jones is a speedster from the track team who has looked good in 7-on-7 competitions during the summer. He won the Best Receiver Award at Furman’s football camp.
The offensive line will count on Kaishawn King and Devron Goldwire to be key contributors while depth and experience is built around those two.
The defense was solid despite giving up big numbers in three games last year. Rodney Smith is a force at defensive end or outside linebacker. Javon Allen is returning from injury, and he will be a key cog at linebacker along with Zach Feaster.
Airport will be young at several spots but the players are coming from junior varsity and B-teams that finished with a combined 17-3 record.
“We might have a lot of sophomores and juniors on the field in key positions on defense, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing,” Burnett said. “I know those guys will run around and play hard and enjoy what they’re doing. A lot of those guys were pretty good on Thursday nights, and we hope they can become good Friday-night players quickly.”
Brady Nelson had a solid year on special teams and will return to handle all the kicking duties.
Burnett expects some struggles with youth and inexperience but he does see improvement after the 7-on-7 success. A return to the playoffs would not be out of the question for a team that routinely expects to be in the postseason.
“We have to coach them better, and I think we have some guys that can scare opponents a little bit offensively,” Burnett said. “I know having a losing record got everybody fired up, from me all the way down to the trainers.”