AIKEN - South Aiken began football practice at 6 a.m. Friday with an hour of conditioning and running drills.
Then, after breakfast and some time inside the gym, the Thoroughbreds hit the field again at 9. After some stretching and assorted exercises, South Aiken coach Dan Pippin gathered his skill players into a small group and sent the rest of the team off for three-on-three "hamburger" drills.
For Dakoda Watson, it must have seemed like an eternity before he could hit someone. He jumped into the fray immediately, and when he wasn't in the pit smashing shoulder pads with a teammate, he was on the side offering encouragement.
"Good job, good job," Watson said repeatedly as one of the Thoroughbreds got the best of a teammate. "You've got to go hard every play."
It's that kind of enthusiasm and desire that makes Watson a coveted Division I prospect. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound defensive end already has gotten offers from North Carolina and Kentucky.
"It's one of my favorites," Watson said of the "hamburger" drill, which simulates offensive vs. defensive line play. "It's facing off and hitting each other."
Friday was the first day teams could practice in South Carolina, and Pippin was eager to get a start on the season that begins Aug. 19 with a home game against West Florence.
With players such as Watson and Ben Anderson, who has committed to Georgia Tech, South Aiken hopes to improve on last year's 5-6 record. The Thoroughbreds lost a number of close games, but still qualified for the Class AAAA playoffs and lost to eventual state champion Byrnes.
"If we can stay healthy, and perform the way I think we can perform, we're going to be OK," Pippin said. "But if we get some injuries, that's where our size really gets us."
The Thoroughbreds got a break with the weather early on, but by the time the 9 a.m. session started the sun had come out and made frequent water breaks a necessity as the temperature began to climb. Later in the day, the weather cooled off as dark clouds and scattered thunderstorms rolled through the area.
"We ran at six and I thought the kids worked pretty hard," Pippin said. "I think we're in pretty good shape just because of what we've done all summer. Being overcast makes a huge difference. Not just for the kids, but for the coaches. I worry about them, too."
Elsewhere in Aiken County, Silver Bluff and Aiken also began their summer practice with early morning drills.
At Petticoat Junction, Silver Bluff coach Al Lown presided over a new look for his Bulldogs as the team unveiled a spread offense with a single back and four receivers.
It's the first time in nearly a decade that Silver Bluff has abandoned its Wing-T offense, Lown said.
"Hopefully it will work out," he said.
The Bulldogs hit the practice field at 7:30 a.m. and practiced until just after 11. They will repeat that schedule today and early next week before practice in full gear begins Tuesday.
Lown made the change because of a limited number of running backs and to keep opposing teams from stacking the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
The Bulldogs also will have a new defensive scheme this year, a 3-5 look with five linebackers, and Lown thinks that will be easier to implement than the new offense.
At Aiken, Hornets coach Carey Johnson had 50 players show up for the 7:30 a.m. start of practice. He normally has about 40 players on the first day of football practice.
Four players showed up late and will have to run laps as punishment today, and a few more had excused absences because they were in Charleston, S.C., for a class. Once Johnson gets everyone on the field together, he said he should have close to 60 battling for playing time.
The Hornets spent the early morning session working on fundamentals and conditioning, and it focused on team drills for the final two hours.
"As far as first practices go, we've been pretty good," Johnson said. "Luckily the weather's been cooperating this morning. ... We're pleased with what we've seen."
Staff writer Kristy Shonka contributed to this article.
Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.