Wins have been hard to come by for the Vikings in recent seasons. They’ve averaged just one per season the past three years, going 3-27 in that stretch.
However, two of the main issues plaguing the Vikings during that horrid stretch — lack of depth and experience — are not a problem for them in 2010.
They return 19 of 22 starters. The majority of the Vikings have been playing for years.
“This is probably the first time in the last four years we’ve rebuilt the youth and middle school programs and now absolutely have some depth,” Vikings coach Bryan Gray said. “I feel pretty confident about turning the corner and surprising some people.
“What’s happened in the past was everyone wanted to play basketball. We had to rely on first-year football players that didn’t know technique and that’s been our downfall. They’ve been athletic, but not experienced. But this senior class is fully developed and everyone behind them has experience.
“We’re not having to rely on freshmen for once.”
In addition, East Hall drops down a classification to Region 8-AA from 7-AAA, which could level out the playing field for the Vikings.
The Vikings return starters at every skill position save one receiver, and the entire line is back.
Quarteback Zach Groover, who split time with the now-graduated Desmond Gardner and started toward the end of last season as a freshman, will take over full-time duties. Last year, Groover completed 9 of his 17 passes for 148 yards while throwing for two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“Zach is extremely intelligent and he’s a good decision maker,” Gray said. “His arm is coming into shape.”
Gray said the strength of the Vikings’ offense will come from the run game.
“We’ve got about four or five of them that have the potential to be really good,” Gray said. “All of them are good in the passing game as well. I’m looking to rely on them heavily.”
Out of the backfield, Gray expects juniors Carlos Negron (5-9, 160) and Jamond Witt (5-8, 170), along with sophomore Austen Mahaffey (5-8, 180) to make an immediate impact. Witt led the Vikings in rushing last year with 242 yards and Mahaffey led the team with three touchdowns.
In the passing game, Groover will look to seniors Chris Johnson and Ariel Negron at receiver. Gray plans to use his receivers primarily in short-passing, screen and handoff situations.
The defense struggled mightily last season, giving up an average of 34.2 points. However, the bulk of those points came when the Vikings had the unfortunate task of playing Gainesville and Flowery Branch in back-to-back games, yielding 63 and 69 points, respectively.
On the flip side, the defense showed promise in the first and last games of the season, giving up just 10 points in each the opener against Murray County and finale against Pickens.
Gray said he’s relying on the experience of the line, anchored by seniors Sterling Bailey and Chaz Cheeks and sophomore Divarius Leverette to enforce a solid pass rush. Stopping the perimeter run game is also a top priority, Gray said.
Gray characterized the kicking game as “all up in the air,” in terms of both a place kicker and punter.
“We’ve got five or six kids — they’re all soccer players — and we’re trying to figure out who we’re going to use,” Gray said. “I have no earthly idea where it’s going to end up. It’s going to take some time.”
Last year’s punter, Chrisel Flores, averaged 42.3 yards an put and had seven punts of 65 or more yards as a senior.
With Region 8-AA subdivided, the Vikings have a shot to win some games in subregion A. Of the six teams in “A,” only two had winning records (Fannin County and Union County both went 6-4); three teams finished 1-9 and another 2-8.
In subregion B, on the other hand, five of seven teams made the state playoffs last season.