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Another season in the rearview, another year of turnover for the Westfield Bulldogs. Gone are running back Dalaun Richardson and quarterback Chris Mullins, the offense’s most productive skill players. Gone are offensive linemen Ned Johnson, Joon Yeo and Jason Beylor, the cogs who paved the way for those skill players. Gone are Brian Deely, Willie Lee, Lamar Hardy and Beau Donahue, leaders of one of the area’s top defenses.

Just about the only things coming back to Stonecroft Boulevard this year are the championship expectations that never seem to leave the football field. Entering his third year as head coach, Kyle Simmons has yet to experience a regular season defeat, storming to 12-0 records that led to region championship appearances each of the last two years. The formula for that success remains the same this fall: replace one large senior class with another, put new faces in the best positions to excel, coach them up and see how far they can take you.

This year, though, Simmons and company are hungry to atone for the bitter tastes left in their mouths each of the last two winters. The Bulldogs closed the 2011 season with a 27-24 loss against rival Centreville in the Northern Region championship, then fell flat on the same stage last November against Oakton. Another undefeated regular season would be nice, but Simmons and his staff want more out of their squad down the stretch this year.

“I think the motivation on the two losses is more on our coaching staff than it is on our players,” Simmons said. “We as a coaching staff are looking at why are we - I say underachieve only because I think we overachieved in our season until the end, and then I think we underachieved. We’re looking at ourselves and saying, ‘What do we need to do with these guys to put them in a better position to win that last football game?’”

The Bulldogs put themselves on the right track in last Friday’s season opener, emerging from a 7-7 halftime deadlock to defeat visiting Hayfield, 35-13. Against an athletic Hayfield team with an array of weapons on offense, Westfield’s defensive line stepped up and showed why it looks to be the team’s greatest strength on that side of the ball this season. Six-foot-five senior lineman Tim Curry anchored a unit that limited shifty tailbacks Osman Kargbo and Emmanuel Nsiah to a combined 75 yards on 18 carries.

Thanks in part to the pressure applied by the defensive line, Westfield’s young secondary - perhaps its biggest question mark this season given a lack of depth at the position - held Hayfield quarterback Ellis Knudson to 117 yards on 14/30 passing.

In addition to occasional lapses on third and long, the defense’s only real negative on the night came in the penalty category, where it combined with the offense to produce 12 penalties for 101 yards compared to Hayfield’s lone 10-yard penalty.

“The good news is we overcame those penalties, but they are things that I don’t think we can continue to do down the road,” Simmons said. “I hope it was a fluke and it doesn’t repeat. We had a couple of facemask penalities, which are a product of getting in space with good athletes and not being able to get them down. That’s the importance of playing good team defense, so that you don’t get into space with those guys.”

On the offensive side of the ball, senior Tyler Thrasher-Walker proved he’s ready to take the reins from Richardson, the engine who drove Westfield’s ground attack last year. Thrasher-Walker embraced his new role as the team’s go-to guy in the backfield by running for 161 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.

Thrasher-Walker, a rangy back at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, cuts a stark contrast to his predecessor, who stood at about 5-foot-7, 190 pounds. The senior knows he won’t be able to replicate some of the bruising runs that powered Richardson to a first team all-region selection last season, but he believes he can make an impact on his own terms.

“Our styles are completely different,” Thrasher-Walker said. “He’s more of a power back. I have some power, but I’m more of a speed back. As soon as I hit the open field, it’s going to be hard to catch me. With Dalaun, you might catch up to him, but he’ll stop on purpose just to stiff arm you to the ground and then keep running.”

Starting under center for Westfield last Friday was junior quarterback Mason Scoville, who completed four of his nine passes for 47 yards and one touchdown to go with a short rushing touchdown. Simmons calls Scoville a “work in progress,” a two-year starter on the baseball team trying to use his athleticism to his advantage on the gridiron. Scoville will rely on senior wide receiver Devon Burns, perhaps the team’s most versatile player who can turn small seams into big gains. Burns showed flashes of that in his 94-yard kick return touchdown last Friday.

Westfield will travel to South Lakes this Friday before going into a bye week intended to get them ready for a brutal midseason stretch that will include contests against Lake Braddock, Fairfax, Stone Bridge, Centreville and Robinson.

“Personally I’m looking forward to it,” senior defensive lineman Tyler Sevener said. “I love playing really good teams because it forces me to play at my very best, which I should do every game, but if I have a big D-1 prospect in front of me, I’ll do my best to play at his level.”

Those games will serve as benchmarks for more important ones down the road. This year’s crop of seniors will do anything to ensure they avoid the same fate suffered by last year’s bunch.

“When we lost that [Oakton] game it was just heartbreaking,” Thrasher-Walker said. “I felt depressed about how we let down so many seniors. But I also found in myself that I do not want to experience this same defeat again. So for me it was a lot of fuel to the fire to work better, get stronger, eat better, get faster and help the team as much as I can.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com