NORTON — Malik Miles, who signed with Carson-Newman in February, was the last of a lineage of elite football players who have worn J.I. Burton uniforms under coach Jimbo Adams.
But don’t expect the Raiders to abandon their annual objective of being one of Southwest Virginia’s elite football programs.
“I think this is the first time in 20- some odd years that John I. Burton is going to go on the field without a Miles, a Sensabaugh or a Coleman on the sideline. That’s change,” Adams said.
“We’re not going to have anybody stand out and wow you. But sometimes when you have those guys, the other kids stand around and wait on them to make plays.
“We all know that we’re only going to be as good as the least amount of effort on every play,” Adams said. “They’re taking ownership of it. It’s fun to coach that.”
While true that Burton enters the 2013 campaign without any players on NCAA Division I or II wish lists, the Raiders aren’t bereft of playmakers. Norton lost two wideouts, a slot, a tailback and a quarterback.
But thanks to injuries that sidelined many of those veterans, a lot of understudies gained valuable experience last year.
Kelly Thompson, a 6-foot-1, 170- pound slotback, climbed up the depth chart to wrap up his junior season right at 1,000 yards rushing and an appointment to the All-West Sectional squad.
“He’s really athletic and he’s looking good in practice,” said Tra Adams, who steps in at quarterback this season. “He’s a little bit faster than last year, actually.
“He’s good at running routes and running the ball. He’s versatile.”
Returning at the other slot is 5-8, 170-pound slotback Tyler Justiniano, who had a few “wow” moments last year despite an injury-ridden season that affected his overall numbers.
Tra Adams, the coach’s sophomore son, also benefits from having junior Cobye Robbins (5-11, 175) and senior Kevin VanNess (5-8, 155) return as wide receivers. DeShawn Patten, a 6-foot, 165- pound freshman, moves in at tight end with junior Daniel Messer (6-0, 145) seeing some time at wide receiver.
“The Justiniano kid, if he stays healthy, may be the best-kept secret in Southwest Virginia. He can play,” Coach Adams said.
“(Tra Adams) doesn’t have great feet or throw it 60 yards down the field, but we’re going to be OK at quarterback, too. He’ll make some sophomore mistakes early.
“But the thing is, he’s got that locker room. They believe in him. And he’s a smart kid ... he is a student of the game.”
A platoon of fullback types mans the one-back spot: Drake Bowen (5-9, 180, Sr.), Ken Knox (5-11, 190, Sr.) and Matthew Branham (6-0, 185, So.).
Up front, veteran lineman J.W. Wharton (5-11, 200, Sr.) switches from guard to center. Dakota Noble (6-1, 225, Sr.) moves to the blind-side tackle. Blakelee Cavins (5-11, 210) is in at right guard with fellow juniors Alec Belcher (6-0, 190) and Shane Absher (5-11, 245) battling at left guard.
The defense looks to replace two linemen, two linebackers and two defensive backs. Adams likes to rotate at least 20 people on defense. This year, a lot of his best defensive kids are down linemen.
In addition to returning starters T.J. Dorsett (6-0, 215, Sr.) and Noble, Savon Wadsworth (6-1, 295, Fr.) and Nelson Tate (6-3, 190, So.) are rotating at the outside tackles. A wealth of interior guys, including Aaron Sargent (5-9, 215, Jr.), Nathan Fields (6-3, 320, Sr.), Peyton Stallard (6-3, 275, Fr.) and Chase Adams (6-2, 290, So.), raises the prospect of some even-front looks this year.
“When you feel like you have 10 good defensive linemen and you play only three at a time, you have seven sitting,” said Jimbo Adams, who also may stir Isaac Buchanan (5-6, 200, Jr.) and Absher into that mix. “West Virginia plays a little four-man front out of their odd stack. We’re trying to emulate that and get an extra hand in the grass sometimes, especially against heavy fronts.”
Branham, Knox and Cavins will rotate at inside linebacker. Justiniano, Bowen, Isaac Davis and Dakota Taylor are getting reps at strong safety. Van Ness, Patten and Messer could line up at corner. Thompson, Robbins and Nathaniel Wyatt will see time at free safety.