The effects of Frederick Douglass High School's 43-6 loss against Middletown in last year's Maryland 2A football state championship game have lingered through the offseason.
The result has stewed in the minds of the players and coaches. What could they have done better? What if the team had remained healthy all year? How did things get so out of hand in the final?
“It's been our motivating tool,” Douglass coach J.C. Pinkney said. “The guys take that to heart. In the offseason, our participation was excellent.”
Now, on the verge of the 2012 season, Douglass is hoping to lay the nagging questions to rest and, as standout senior wide receiver Paul Harris said, “finish the job.”
The task won't be easy. The Eagles lost the three key components that made their offensive backfield so dangerous during last year's 11-3 season. Quarterback Taitor Reynolds, and running backs Josef Hinnant and Emmanuel Smith all graduated, leaving the competition at those skill positions very much ongoing throughout preseason practices. That could put Douglass' streak of nine consecutive postseason appearances in doubt.
Senior Matt Paul, who was an All-Gazette first team selection at linebacker last year, is taking first-team reps at quarterback — a position he hasn't played since eighth grade.
“It's a big step, but I'm willing to take it because I want to win,” Paul said. “I want to help my team be successful.”
Last year, Paul was dominant on defense, recording 146 tackles and six interceptions. He's not a weapon Pinkney seems too keen on losing to the offensive side, meaning the Eagles could be in the hands of a freshman: Devin Butler.
The 6-foot-2, 175-pounder has impressed Pinkney, who said the competition to be the team's signal-caller has been fruitful. And given Paul's impact on defense, Pinkney might not be heartbroken if he ended up losing out.
“Honestly, if Devin's better, even though he's a freshman, then he's got to play because that's what's best for our team,” Paul said. “I would prefer linebacker, just because that's where I'm comfortable, but if I've got to play [quarterback], then so be it.”
Added Pinkney: “If we feel like we're lacking over there without [Paul], he's going to play fulltime [on defense] and the young kid may get the nod.”
Questions also remain at running back, where four players all are vying for playing time.
Sophomores Kevin Freeman and Mikale Makle and juniors K.J. Freeman and Avery Wood will all attempt to replace the fierce Hinnant-Smith combo from a season ago.
“We're searching for the right mix and right combination,” Pinkney said. “Running the football, that's been our staple. We're trying to find out who's going to be that go-to guy.”
It's not all positional uncertainty for Douglass, however, as one of the deeper groups in Prince George's County returns 12 starters from last year, including Harris, who committed to Tennessee in the offseason. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound receiver not only has a legitimate chance to be the best player in the county, but the state as well and should provide a calming presence for whoever is throwing the ball to him and speedster Devonte Williams.
“Devin's looking really good right now,” Harris said. “We're looking for him to take some of the load off Matt. Once that gets established, I think we'll look really good because our line, they're experienced. They're ready.”
A gigantic part of that standout line — literally and figuratively — is D'Sean Cummings. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior recorded 109 tackles and seven sacks from his defensive end spot last year and also is slated to start at right tackle on offense.
“At Douglass, you always expect to go to the states. No matter who the personnel are, the focus is always that, 'this is our year,'” Cummings said.
Cummings is joined by senior James Fenwick on a line that was punishing in 2011.
The Eagles begin the season Friday at Archbishop Spalding and a highly anticipated Week 3 matchup against rival Gwynn Park awaits soon after.
“Our goal is to play 14 [games] this year,” Pinkney said. “That's our goal.”