Camp Countdown: Westfield is hungry to defend its state title

[READ ARTICLE IN THE WASHINGTON POST]

2015 record: 14-1, beat Oscar Smith in the Va. 6A state championship

Returning starters: 6 offense / 5 defense

Style of play: Pro-style offense / 4-3 defense

Key returning players: QB Rehman Johnson, Sr. (380 passing yards, six touchdowns, zero interceptions); WR Sean Eckert, Sr. (23 catches, 439 yards, four touchdowns); OL Christian Karl, Sr.; LB Kevin Petrillo, Sr. (107 tackles, three sacks, six interceptions); DL Zach Jewell, Sr. (49 tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles)

Toughest matchups:

Sept. 9 at South County: A reloaded South County squad will be itching for revenge on its home turf after last year’s 40-8 embarrassment in the 6A North region final. The Stallions won this Week 2 meeting a year ago, dealing the Bulldogs their lone defeat.

Oct. 14 vs. Robinson: Rams quarterback Alex Miller and tailback Roman Lowry — both three-year starters — will lead Robinson’s experienced ground attack into a bruising Concorde matchup that rarely disappoints.

The Skinny:

It will be a long time before the shine wears off Westfield’s glittering 2015 football season. Finally, after four straight years of coming up short in the region final, the Bulldogs annihilated South County in the 6A North region championship, then overcame Oscar Smith in an unforgettable, triple-overtime thriller for their first state crown since 2007.

The Bulldogs are not eager to deem their past accomplishments ancient history. They are, however, ready to take a different approach to the 2016 campaign.

“No drama,” senior linebacker Kevin Petrillo said. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for ourselves. Last year we probably would have been a lot better actually — probably would have gone undefeated — without the distractions.”

The weekend following their season-opening win over Washington-Lee, several football players violated Fairfax County’s conduct policy, resulting in 15- and 30-day suspensions for six of the team’s starters. Westfield fell to South County in Week 2, 26-19, its only blemish on an otherwise sparkling campaign.

[Breaking down the best matchups of the 2016 VHSL football schedule]

For the Bulldogs, this fall will be all about keeping their heads down — taking care of school work, staying out of trouble and defending their state title. They want to take last year’s achievements a step further — match the 15-0 2007 team by winning every game on the field, while staying clean off of it.

And they just might be good enough to do it.

Westfield graduated Tyler Scanlon, the towering, do-everything athlete who powered an explosive offense to 30.6 points per game last year. But the Bulldogs made an important switch in the playoffs that could pay dividends for them this year: Moving Scanlon from quarterback to wide receiver gave Rehman Johnson time under center when the stakes were highest in November and December. The strong-armed senior now enters his first full season as a starting quarterback with valuable playoff experience.

“I’ve really been impressed with him in the last two or three months from a maturity standpoint and a leadership standpoint,” Westfield Coach Kyle Simmons said. “He’s in a good place right now, and I just need him to not get lackadaisical about that and stay on a straight line.”

Simmons doesn’t have the deepest offensive line on his hands this year, but he’s comfortable with his starting unit, anchored by hulking seniors Christian Karl and Jean-Marc Tsetou. Fellow seniors Ivory Frimpong and Sean Eckert give Johnson reliable pass-catching options, as does his biggest target, junior tight end Nolan Cockrill.

As always, the Bulldogs are stacked on defense, even after graduating All-Met linebacker (and wrestler) Jay Aiello. Six-foot-4 lineman Zach Jewell will help fill that void, while Petrillo is still riding the confidence gained from his six interceptions during last year’s playoffs. After Tuesday’s practice, defensive coordinator Mike Giancola recalled that performance and handed Petrillo “The Hammer,” a ceremonial sledgehammer Giancola lends each week to the player who best embodies his defense’s relentless tenacity.

Petrillo, a Georgetown lacrosse commit, credits that breakout postseason performance to consistent film study, which allowed him to track his spots right when the ball was snapped. That studious approach is in many ways a microcosm of Westfield’s program, a well-oiled machine fueled by meticulous preparation.

“Really we’re so far ahead of the game right now that it’s kind of just review,” Petrillo said. “We’re ready to get going.”

For Westfield, the official start of practice this week yields more fine-tuning than introductions. Most of Simmons’s players have already been through team camp and a combo camp earlier this summer. He expects all of his guys to be in shape by this point, which is why Westfield practices in August feel more like classroom sessions than boot camps.

“We probably don’t have the most athletic team, especially in the state,” Petrillo said. “So when we can get on top of other teams, it’s in the game plan.”

Camp Countdown is a daily series as our reporters visit preseason practices around D.C., Maryland and Virginia to get a feel for the upcoming 2016 football season.

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