Coming off a two-win season, first-year Aiken football coach Brian Neal recognizes turning the program around requires patience and slow progress. The players are putting in the necessary work to begin the transition.
Neal brings a winning résumé to his new position, coming off an appearance in the 2012 Class A Division II state championship in only his second year as head coach at McCormick. He won a state title as a player with Ninety Six in 1983.
Neal now has the task of responding to a 2-9 mark for Aiken last season. Carey Johnson stepped down as head coach after the season but remained as athletic director.
“Fundamentals, all of the steps with the coaching staff and on to getting things done is a slow work in progress,” Neal said. “But as far as the kids go and getting things done, they’re working their butts off and I can’t ask for anything else.”
Neal said getting better participation was a big first step. Between the varsity and junior varsity programs, he said Aiken now has more than 100 players. The next step is getting them “football ready.”
“We’re a triple-option team and 4-3 on defense,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go with a triple-option. There’s a lot of bumps in the road along the way, as evident in the jamboree, and it’s the same thing defensively. It’s about small steps, and I think if we keep getting better at that, I think we’re getting better every day. That’s all we can do.”
Running back Nakeem Spann is expected to lead the rushing attack for the Hornets. Caleb Heath will start at quarterback, and Neal said he is showing a solid ability to lead an option-style offense. D’Andre Pope is an athletic two-way player who could play multiple positions on defense while getting an occasional carry at fullback.
Coach Brian Mabry will run the defense. Mabry, a high-energy coach who held the defensive coordinator position for Neal at McCormick, brings a different style of coaching to the program alongside Neal.
“We’re kind of almost alter egos,” Neal said. “He’s wide open and loud, and I’m kind of on the opposite side of things. We work good together.”