The office of sixth-year football coach Bennie McMurray was a chaotic affair as the Lancaster Bruins prepared for their annual media day. An influx of players and coaches continuously poked their heads in McMurray's office with a broad range of questions. The coach fielded all of them with his trademark assertiveness.
As the players suited up in full pads for an extended evening practice, McMurray offered a glimpse into the pride and passion that he has utilized to rejuvenate a once dismal Lancaster football program.
"This program saw its share of rough times, so hopefully we've turned the corner after these past couple seasons," McMurray said, once his office began to quiet down.
The past couple seasons McMurray referred to were the 2008 and 2009 campaigns when the Bruins went 10-4 and 7-5, respectively, en route to impressive postseason runs.
With more than 34 years of coaching experience under his belt, McMurray has experienced the wide spectrum of triumphs and setbacks with the teams he's overseen. The Bruins will be without many of the starters that brought them success.
"We graduated 26 players the previous season and the average grade of our varsity squad will be junior," McMurray said. "We lost some quality people, and we'll be playing a tough schedule this year. But if you want to get to the state finals, you'll have to play and beat the best teams. There's no way around it."
Lancaster High School was placed in a new region this season because of the South Carolina High School League's biannual realignment process that classifies schools by enrollment. McMurray jokingly referred to Region 3-AAAA as the "NFL East Region." Their schedule is riddled with top tier teams: Rock Hill, Northwestern, Clover, Gaffney and Spartanburg.
In order to remain competitive, the Bruins will rely upon a gritty, hard-hitting defense anchored by seven returning starters. Utilizing a 4-3 scheme, the aggressive tone of the defensive play is expected to be set by the linemen led by senior tackle Daniel Foster and defensive end Ervin Moore.
Moore will be both linebacker and pass rusher after bulking up significantly in the offseason. His workout regime, coupled with senior leadership, has made him a focal point of a stout defense.
"I need to get the playbook down, but other than that I'm feeling pretty good going into this season," said Moore, who broke school records in the bag jump and hang clean this past year. "Individually, I want to keep a strong mentality to help lead this team as a senior. But more importantly, we as a team need to keep this new tradition of winning going. We need to make sure of that."
Foster focused on quickness off the ball in the offseason. He clarified his goals on defense as well as his observations of the younger generation of players that will see increased playing time this year.
"Our line wants to take the pressure off of our corners and keep their tackles down," Foster said. "We'll have some younger guys out there on defense, but from what I've seen they are very athletic and pure football players."
While inexperience is less of an issue on defense, the offensive side of the ball saw the departure of starters at quarterback, wide receiver and running back. Only three seniors are returning from last season, all on the offensive line: Dustin Belk, Devonte Craine and Jonathan Jeffery, who is returning from an ACL tear that kept him out of action most of 2009.
Belk, who plays center, discussed the challenge and importance of helping the younger players. There is talent but it is unproven with players such as quarterback Shaquille Williams and all-purpose tailback Brandon Reese. They need to acclimate to the spread offensive scheme.
"We just need to get Shaq, who used to be a defensive back, comfortable in the pocket," Belk said. "The underclassmen we have on offense were around the starters last season and have been around the program as it's gotten steadily better. I want to help prepare the offense to keep carrying the torch after the seniors move on."
The senior Bruins pointed out that the squad that finished with a winning record last season was young, too.
The team's bare bones, workmanlike mentality stems directly from coach McMurray who demands nothing less than a 100 percent dedication to the principles of hard work and execution.
For a team that annually plays many of South Carolina's most decorated football programs, anything less than supreme effort and focus is inexcusable.
"X's and O's don't win football games, Jimmies and Joes win football games," McMurray said. "If the other team has better athletes there's nothing we can do about it. But if we get outworked and outhustled then it's going to be a problem. If my players can look in the mirror after a game and be satisfied with what they see, then as a coach that's all you can ask for."