George Redding is ready for his Fairview High football team to be known for more than its ability to pass the ball. That aspect of the Aggies' game has yet to be a problem in the head coach's five years with the program, and it shouldn't be one in his sixth, at least not with Luke Bailey returning for his final season as the team's starting quarterback.
But it's simply not enough for Redding anymore. This year, he's challenging all 54 players who showed up at Monday's first fall practice to bring a “more physical-type atmosphere” to every single facet of the game.
“Right now, we're definitely known for throwing the football, but our stresses this fall are defense and our run game,” the coach said. “We believe if we can take care of those things — in that order — we can give ourselves a chance to be successful.”
Success is something Fairview has been accustomed to in recent years. The Aggies, fresh off a 7-4 season and fourth straight trip to the playoffs, are just two years removed from a magical 10-2 campaign that saw them advance to the second round of the postseason.
Bailey said he sees a lot of similarities between that team and the Purple and Gold squad he will take the field with in a little more than three weeks.
“I feel like the year we went 10-2, we all came together as a team,” the All-State quarterback said. “There were no groups, no cliques or anything. We were just all together.
“I've had the same feeling this year. Nobody separates themselves from the team. It's like everybody into one. That is going to be huge for us this year.”
What will also be huge is the loss of wide receivers Tyler King and Spencer Byrd to graduation. As much as he'll miss that All-State duo, Bailey is feeling confident with the targets — Bryant Powers, Jake Chandler and Dexton Gregory — he'll have in 2012.
He said Powers is probably the team's best route runner, Chandler is fitting in nicely since transferring from Cullman and Gregory is continuing to develop after gaining valuable experience at the position last season.
“It's tough to replace them,” Bailey said of King and Byrd. “It'll be different, but it'll be good. We have enough athletes who can step up and make plays. Every day, somebody else is making plays. It's great.”
One Aggie once again able to make plays is Marco Rodriguez, who was sidelined for most of the season after breaking his fibula in Week 5 last year.
The senior running back and outside linebacker said he's currently at about 85 percent. Rodriguez was fully involved in Monday's team practice and said he can now make a few cuts that he wasn't able to handle during the spring.
“I've been motivated a lot,” he said. “I just want to come back strong this year and help this team out with everything I can.”
Rodriguez will be joined in the backfield by Holly Pond transfer Trent Shoemaker. Although Redding made it clear that “Marco is our running back,” he said having a proven playmaker like Shoemaker in the mix will allow the team to keep fresh legs on the field and “not drop out in talent whatsoever.”
Bailey likened the duo to when Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson shared the same backfield in Tuscaloosa, and senior offensive lineman Jake Roberts said he's excited to block for the two speedsters.
“As long as we do a good job up front, we know that they'll do their part and help us out,” Roberts said.
The Aggies will need their offense, as well as their defense, which returns four starters, to hit on all cylinders if they hope to compete in Class 4A, Region 6. They'll no longer have to face North Jackson, but Guntersville is still on the schedule. The addition of Sardis, St. Clair County and state runner-up Oneonta won't make matters any easier, either.
Though it won't be a walk in the park, Rodriguez said he believes Fairview will have a good chance to win the region.
“I think we can beat any team on the schedule,” he said. “We just have to come together and be one team because we're brothers.”
Bailey was on the same page. He said a deep run in the playoffs definitely isn't out of the question.
“I think it comes down to playing together and playing well all season long,” he said. “You can't take a week off or you'll be back in fourth place in the region and have to travel in the first round. If we can be at home that first round, I think we'll be in good shape.”
* Leaving a legacy: Although Bailey has no problem accruing a great deal of individual statistics — the quarterback passed for more than 3,008 yards, rushed for 755 and was involved in a total of 47 touchdowns last year — his primary goal remains helping his team win ballgames.
While that attitude won't change any time soon, there is one record Bailey said he'll be gunning for in 2012. He wants to set the team's mark for most wins — 22 — which is currently held by his coach. Bailey said he heads into Aug. 31's season-opening home game against Hanceville with 17 victories.
“If anybody deserves that record, it's definitely Luke,” Redding said. “He's worked for it. There's still a lot of work to get to it, but I know he's putting in the time and leadership to get there.”
* Setting priorities: With only four returning starters on defense, Redding admits there's a lot of work to be done on that side of the field this fall.
“It's defense-first around here right now,” he said. “It's a priority for us. We're trying to get the right guys in the right spot.”
The coach said he has been encouraged by the addition of Ethan Arbet, a transfer from Cullman who will take over for Kanzaz Bailey as Fairview's mike linebacker.
“He can be a tremendous anchor there on defense,” Redding said.
* Editor’s note: Pick up the Football Fever special section on Aug. 26 to see a team preview for Fairview, as well as the other eight schools in the Times’ coverage area.