The good news for the South Aiken High School football team is that it’s coming off its best season in four years under head coach Jeremy West, continuing its trend of improving each season. The bad news is that the Thoroughbreds missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, and the program has only finished a season with a winning record once in the past decade.


The challenge for the T-Breds this year is to reverse both of those trends with a breakthrough campaign.


“We want to make the playoffs. That’s a big step,” West said.


2013 in review

Last season ended with mixed emotions for South Aiken. The T-Breds snapped an eight-game losing skid with back-to-back victories to close out the regular season schedule, including their second-consecutive win over crosstown rival Aiken High.


The solid finish allowed the T-Breds (3-8, 2-3) to finish fourth in Region 5-AAAA and entertain realistic hopes of getting an at-large berth into the Class AAAA, Division II playoffs. Those hopes were dashed, almost cruelly, as South Aiken fell victim to the points system used to determine the postseason field – by ½ a point. Although there was disappointment in narrowly missing the playoffs, West said the strong finish and snub are fuel for this year.


“It helped a lot in the offseason. The kids wanted to get that taste out. It’s a springboard into the offseason; it’s always better coming into a season on a winning streak than losing,” West said, hoping to repeat that success this year and continue on into the postseason.


“We peaked toward the end. We want to keep playing, because once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen.”


Returning stars

While the T-Breds lost several key contributors from last year’s team to graduation, they return several experienced players – especially on defense. Leading the way is Rasool Clemons.


The senior defensive end is one of the most recruited players in South Carolina – still weighing offers from LSU, Tennessee, Florida State and Clemson among other Division I programs. Clemons is such a hot commodity because of his long, athletic frame, great burst off the ball and his motor.


In spite of drawing constant double teams – and occasional triple teams – Clemons still contributed 66 tackles, including 19 tackles for loss last season, even though he missed a game because of an injury. But West said that Clemons’ greatest asset is his attitude.


“He’s a heck of a leader. He’s not a ‘me’ guy; he’s a team guy,” West said. “His goal is to make South Aiken the best and get to the playoffs. When one of your best players has that attitude, it’s contagious. He’s a hungry player and wants to get better.”


The 6-foot-6, 212-pound Clemons isn’t the only veteran returning to the defensive line. He’ll be joined in the trenches with experienced linemen such as Caleb Stanford and fellow senior Tyberious Simmons, who will both be counted on to perform on the offensive front. Shone Brodus is another senior returning to the defensive line. The T-Breds also bring back senior linebackers Ryan McNutt and Jeremy Hamilton and are counting on the extremely-athletic Jeff McReynolds to contribute in the secondary. Kyle Neira will return to the offensive line, where he’ll anchor the unit as either the center or a guard, sharing those responsibilities with fellow senior Lee Girardeau.


New faces

Part of South Aiken’s steady improvement under West was the result of the growth of core members of the team that were thrust into action as youngsters and continued to develop over the years. They achieved their greatest success last year as seniors, leaving several openings for new players to step up and contribute this season.


No new starter will attract as much attention as Bowen Smith, who’ll take over as the T-Breds’ quarterback. By virtue of his position, Smith will draw great interest as the triggerman of the offense. Because he’s following Bo Baldwin, a player who was as talked about as much as any in the are over the past few years, the intrigue in Smith is expanded.


While he lacks significant playing time under center, Smith has the full confidence of his head coach.


“He’s an outstanding leader. He’s a vocal young man and takes pride in being back there and controls the huddle,” West said of Smith’s virtues. “He’s got a good arm and footwork and makes good reads. Experience is the big question mark, but I expect he’ll be fine.”


Smith will throw the ball to a new cast of receivers other than those who were on the field with Baldwin last season. South Aiken’s top seven receivers from last season were all seniors, with Chance Holbrooks the top pass catcher returning, having gained 48 yards on four receptions in 2013. West likes what Holbrooks can be capable of this season, working out of the slot. He’s also optimistic about the players he’s expected to line up outside. One is Harold Hilton, a speedy sophomore who’s related to former Silver Bluff star and NFL receiver Troy Williamson. The other is Clemons.


“We’re going to put the best 11 on the field,” West said of having his star defensive end running routes, along with twins Eli and Noah Bentley. “They’ve been working hard all summer and have gotten off to a good start in practice.”


Although the T-Breds’ top four rushers from last season are also gone, they boast an intriguing group of ball carriers. A great deal of emphasis is placed on Malik Lee, a senior tailback who transferred from Wardlaw Academy after rushing for close to 6,000 yards and 78 touchdowns the past two seasons while playing 8-Man football.


Lee’s expected to battle for playing time with Tancey Richardson, a sophomore who put up impressive stats of his own on the JV team a season ago. McReynolds could also log time toting the rock, and Coby Campbell as well as DJ Perry will line up at H-back.


Lee will be called on to help out in the secondary, and could log major minutes at safety. Another newcomer expected to contribute on defense is Sojourn Gartrell. The junior is hybrid linebacker and defensive end.


Games to watch

Thanks to realignment, South Aiken will open its season against it’s crosstown rival, Aiken, rather than close out the campaign with the showdown. Aiken has moved to Class AAA, so the rivalry game has moved as well. But there’s no less excitement having that contest at the start of the season.


“It could be week five or six; Aiken is always a big game for us,” West said. “It’s good to have it the first game.”


South Aiken will follow that contest with a non-region schedule highlighted by contests with more area rivals like Midland Valley and Strom Thurmond. Once Region 5-AAAA play commences, it will feature some change because of realignment, with home games against River Bluff and Irmo before closing the regular season with games against familiar opponents White Knoll, Lexington and North Augusta.


Offense

With so many new faces on offense, South Aiken will be tweaking its approach when it’s got the ball. Breaking from its recent run of power football, the T-Breds will look to go more up tempo. They’ll employ a variety of looks, but will do so at a rapid pace.


Part of the rationale behind this is to win the battle of time of possession, running a great number of plays. The other motivating factor behind the switch is to maximize the skills of the players, who aren’t as physically big as recent South Aiken squads.


“We’ve got to adapt to the personnel we have,” said West, who added that this plan has been in place since the spring and the players have been working diligently to maintain their stamina to support this scheme for four quarters. “They’ve done a good job conditioning.”


Defense

The T-Breds will be versatile on defense, employing multiple defensive fronts based on what the gameplan calls for going against a variety of opponents. They’ll still work out of a base 4-3 package, but will adjust as needed to put defenders in a position to fly to the ball, make tackles and get off the field.


West’s emphasis is on making sound tackles, especially in the open field or one-on-one situations. It can be the difference between allowing a 5- or 6-yard gain compared to a 50- or 60-yard touchdown. That alone can neutralize the high-scoring offenses South Aiken will face, regardless if their opponent operates out of the spread, two-back or Wing-T formation.


West is also looking for his defense to create more turnovers than it did in 2013, another way it can win the battle of field position and put its offense in beneficial situations.


Special Teams

Another way to get the offense going is with special teams.


South Aiken will benefit from the return of Owen Myers, one of the steadiest place kickers in the area. The All-Aiken Standard first team kicker made 20 of 24 extra points last season, also connecting on 5 of 6 field goal tries, including a pair of 42-yard boots.


This season, the junior will take on the duties of kicking off, which won’t be the only new wrinkle to the T-Breds’ kicking game. They will also replace All-Aiken Standard punter Matt Albertson, with Myers among the candidates to assume that duty. He’s competing with John Platt and Smith – the quarterback – for that job.


As far as returning kicks goes, it’s currently an open competition. Hilton, Richardson and McReynolds are all candidates to return kickoffs, while Lee could be the man charged with handling punt returns. All are explosive, and Lee has a great track record of doing big things in open-field spaces.


Overall outlook

After facing a murderer’s row of opponents the past two seasons, including at least one state champion, the T-Breds have a much more competitive slate in 2014. By no means is it easy, but they should find themselves in many more competitive games, which in turn could lead to more wins.


The combination of realignment, coaching changes and personnel departures leaves Region 5-AAAA as wide open for any team to win the championship as it has been in a number of years. While that might be too lofty of a goal for the T-Breds, contending for a playoff berth is within their reach. West is looking for a reward for his players’ efforts.


“I want to be able to put kids in the situation to play their best all of the time,” West said. “The kids at South Aiken deserve success for all of the hard work they’ve put in.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.


2013 RESULTS


• Richland Northeast 40-12 Win


• Greenwood 17-10 Loss


• Northwestern 65-7 Loss


• Silver Bluff 36-20 Loss


• Strom Thurmond 21-7 Loss


• Spring Valley 28-16 Loss


• Dutch Fork 59-28 Loss


• Lexington 31-17 Loss


• North Augusta 42-6 Loss


• White Knoll 17-13 Win


• Aiken 23-6 Win


2014 SCHEDULE


all games at 7:30 p.m.


• Aug. 29 vs. Aiken


• Sept. 5 at Midland Valley


• Sept. 12 vs. Glenn Hills


• Sept. 19 vs. Strom Thurmond


• Sept. 26 at Spring Valley


• Oct. 3 at Colleton County


• Oct. 10 vs. River Bluff^


• Oct. 17 vs. Irmo^


• Oct. 24 at White Knoll^


• Oct. 31 at Lexington^


• Nov. 7 vs. North Augusta^


^ Region 5-AAAA opponents


SEASON PREVIEW SCHEDULE


• Aug. 4: North Augusta


• Aug. 5: Strom Thurmond


• Aug. 6: Fox Creek


• Today: South Aiken


• Friday: Williston-Elko


• Saturday: Wagener-Salley


• Monday: Silver Bluff


• Tuesday: Aiken


• Wednesday: Ridge Spring-Monetta


• Aug. 14: Midland Valley