AIKEN — When head coach Brian Neal entered his first season at Aiken in 2013, the first steps toward program progression were increasing participation and developing the younger players.
After going 1-10 in his first season, Neal said he’s starting to see the realization of those two steps as he nears his second year with the Hornets.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” Neal said. “We’re further along right now than we were last year at this point. The kids know their abilities a lot better, know what’s expected of them and vice versa.”
Participation is picking up for Aiken, and Neal said the formation of a ninth-grade team should help alleviate depth concerns. With a year of experience as head coach, Neal and the players are building a connection that could further help development.
After beating Richland Northeast in the fourth game of the 2013 season, Aiken lost its final seven to continue a regression that began after its most recent winning season in 2008. The Hornets are moving down to Class AAA after going winless in the competitive Region 5-AAAA last year, but the schedule remains tough as they look to inch closer to a winning record.
Aiken will turn to junior Bryson Jones as the new quarterback. Jones is an athletic dual threat, but he also has size to avoid getting knocked around. Neal compared his skill set to previous quarterback Caleb Heath.
“He runs well and makes good decisions, and he throws the ball well,” Neal said. “He could be a dual-threat guy who could help us.”
The Hornets should produce on the ground from a good rushing duo of Brayton Sanders and Terrell Lewis. The offensive line was a concern a year ago, but most starters return, including junior Austin Schofield.
“If we have a lack of depth right now, it’s probably offensive and defensive line,” Neal said. “They kind of took it upon themselves to get bigger and stronger, more agile, and I think they’ve done that.”
Aiken’s defense returns a strong core of athletes, led by senior defensive back Jaylen Smith. Jones is also expected to contribute as a ball hawk in the secondary. While there are more returners on the defensive side, depth remains an issue.
Aiken has pieces to compete, but depth and development are the biggest concerns. As Neal continues to put his stamp on the program, the key is whether the Hornets take greater steps forward in those areas.
“As everybody says, we have a long way to go,” Neal said. “We’re still doing a lot of things that aren’t fundamentally sound that we’re trying to fix, so we’re working hard.”