Standing in the middle of a swampy practice field behind Culpeper Middle School on a 40-degree Tuesday afternoon, James Ford felt right at home.
Ford, Culpeper High School’s head football coach, is back in charge after missing the entire 2019 season while battling leukemia.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Ford said, intermittently stepping away to give instruction to the Blue Devils’ players. “The past year and a half has been a real challenge, between my health and the pandemic.”
Ford was named Culpeper’s new head coach in April 2019, replacing Ken Wakefield, who took the same job at Patrick Henry-Ashland. He was preparing to lead the Blue Devils into their first campaign as members of the Class 4 Northwestern District when he received his cancer diagnosis shortly before the season kicked off that August.
Advised by his doctors to avoid the stress of coaching, Ford had little choice but to stay away from his team while undergoing chemotherapy treatments. He lost approximately 80 pounds between August and November, and when he opted to attend Culpeper’s final home game on Nov. 1, he was nearly unrecognizable.
“When we all got together for some conditioning last summer, a few of my assistant coaches told me just how much my appearance scared them and some of the players,” Ford said. “I was about 260 pounds before the [leukemia] and had dropped down around 180 by then, so I can only imagine how dramatic a difference that was for them, especially considering the fact that I’d been away.”
Nearing the end of his regular chemo regimen, Ford had planned on coaching the Blue Devils in 2020. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Virginia High School League to postpone all 2020 fall sports—football among them—to early 2021.
“Dealing with all the effects of this pandemic has been difficult for everyone,” said Ford, who was declared cancer-free last October but is still undergoing once-a-month maintenance treatments that will last for two more years. “It’s changed the way we do some things, and I have to be especially mindful myself because I’m immuno-compromised from the leukemia. But all in all, everyone’s very excited about getting this thing going.”
The Blue Devils have only nine seniors on a roster of nearly 40 players, but there’s plenty of experience among those ranks.
Offensively, JoJo Crenshaw returns at quarterback. The 6-foot-5 senior completed 61 of 133 passes for an admirable 45.9% clip in 2019, though he struggled with a 4-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
“I at least have some experience under my belt,” said Crenshaw, who was thrust into the starting role in Culpeper’s fourth game. “I know more of what I’m doing than I did last year, so I expect a lot more from myself now.”
While the Blue Devils lost their top three receivers to graduation (Armani Hoffman, Dejour McCray and Ozzy Reindorf-Malm), Crenshaw should still have plenty of support in the form of an experienced backfield and offensive line.
Senior Riley Harrison will lead the running back corps. He paced Culpeper with 752 rushing yards last season, averaging nearly six yards per carry and tallying a pair of scores.
Another senior, Austin Lentz, was first on the squad with six touchdowns and second in yardage behind Harrison with 402.
Harrison and Lentz will be joined by two newcomers in sophomore Malachi Terrell and junior Dillan Shifflett.
“Our backfield is really experienced with Austin and Riley back,” Ford said. “We’re going to lean on them a lot this season.”
Three senior starters are back to anchor the offensive line: left tackle Bracken Hibbert (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), center Stewart Jones (6-0, 230) and right guard Tyler Jeffries (6-4, 330).
Sophomore Aiden Curley (5-11, 195) steps in at left guard, while junior Corey Hutcherson takes over at right tackle.
“We’re expecting big things from our o-line,” Ford remarked. “Stewart, Tyler and Bracken have a lot of experience between them, and Aiden and Corey have a lot of potential.”
Senior Joe Holland is a big target (6-4, 222) that figures to be the Blue Devils’ No. 1 option at receiver. Senior Darnell Henderson, junior Brandon Bonfadini and sophomores A.J. Marshall and Cole Plaster will all see time out wide as well.
Ford talked about his duo of junior tight ends, Dionte Ford (6-3, 267) and Quentin Butler (6-5, 234) with palpable enthusiasm.
“We’re looking to utilize our tight ends a lot more this year,” he said. And both of those guys are capable of doing damage for us as pass-catchers and blockers.”
Ford and Butler will also occupy the end spots in Culpeper’s new 4-2-5 defensive alignment. Hibbert, Jeffries and Hutcherson will rotate between the two tackle positions. Hibbert’s stat line a season ago included 55 tackles (three for loss), a sack, a pair of fumble recoveries and an interception return for a score.
Harrison will once again head up the linebacking unit. He targeted opposing ball carriers like a heat-seeking missile in 2019, amassing a team-high 111 tackles (10 for loss), two sacks, a pair of forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. Those numbers earned him first-team all-district and second-team all-Region 4C honors.
Junior Bhailu Kebedi will fill the other linebacker slot.
With Hoffman, McCray and Josh Plaster all departed, Holland and Lentz are both moving from their linebacker spots to occupy two of the safety positions. Holland, who has accepted a preferred walk-on offer to play outside linebacker at the University of Virginia this fall, tallied 71 tackles (four for loss), two forced fumbles and a pair of picks last season. Lentz totaled 44 tackles and two interceptions of his own.
Shifflett will be the other safety, which Ford said is a rover position that will allow him to fully utilize his athleticism in defending both the run and the pass.
Henderson and Marshall are the likely starters at the cornerback slots.
“I expect our defense to be very good,” Harrison said. “We’ve got a lot of talent, especially in the front six.”
Ford echoed Harrison’s sentiments while praising him at the same time.
“We should be really strong against the run,” he said. “And Riley is a big reason why. He’s just an awesome football player with a real nose for the ball who you can’t say enough good things about.”
Ford pointed out that while the entire secondary is retooled, he’s hopeful it will develop into one of the squad’s strengths.
“I think Joe and Austin will really help us back there,” he said. “Hopefully the other guys will come around as they gain more experience.”
Holland will handle both the kicking and punting, while Ford is weighing a handful of options for kickoff- and punt-returning duties.
The Blue Devils will kick off their campaign with a road showdown at district foe Fauquier on Monday night at 7 p.m.
“I don’t want to sound too cliche’ here, but our goal is to go 1-0 every week,” said Ford, who will be coaching his first game in 842 days. “The guys are still learning some new concepts I put in on the fly, but they’re capable of very big things.”
Culpeper Blue Devils
Class 4, Region C / Northwestern District / Coach James Ford
Feb. 22 (Monday) at Fauquier, 7
March 6 (Saturday) at Liberty (Bealeton), 1
March 12 at Kettle Run, 7
March 19 Handley, 7
March 26 Fauquier, 7
April 1 (Thursday) at Rock Ridge, 7
Final Record 1-9
Aug. 29 (Thursday) Eastern View L, 0-28
Sept. 6 Monticello W, 30-6
Sept. 13 at Spotsylvania L, 13-40
Sept. 26 (Thursday) at Liberty (Bealeton) L, 7-28
Oct. 4 Handley L, 7-42
Oct. 11 at James Wood L, 21-28
Oct. 18 Fauquier L, 16-21
Oct. 25 at Sherando L, 12-52
Nov. 1 Kettle Run L, 14-28
Nov. 8 at Millbrook L, 6-19