AZTEC — A new era of Aztec High School football has officially begun.
Legendary players from the 2011 state championship season have graduated, and head coach Matt Steinfeldt is fully implementing his system in his second year leading the team in place of Brad Hirsch.
Junior quarterback Marcus Crawford takes the reigns of Aztec's high-powered offense this season in place of 2012 NMPreps.com Mr. Football award winner Adam Lucero. And Ryneal Lewis-Adams will look to do everything he can to will Aztec toward another run deep into the 4A state playoffs.
"One problem we ran into early last year was our familiarity with the playbook because all the guys had gone through the same playbook since they played YAFL," Lewis-Adams said. "The seniors last year had to do the best they could to pick it up as quick as they could. A lot of juniors and sophomores returned from last year's team, and we all know the playbook a lot more. All I know is, teams are going to have to be ready to play us, because I don't think anybody knows how far we are yet."
Steinfeldt has been impressed by his players' dedication to development and willingness to put in extra time to fully develop into the system. Aztec has a small group of seniors returning from the 2012 team but a solid core of juniors.
"We have a relatively small roster this year, but it is comprised of individuals who have made a huge commitment to the program and who are yearning to learn more and more," Steinfeldt said. "Our team at Week 1 this year versus our team Week 1 of last year is drastically different. There are different athletes with different skill sets, but these players and I have spent a lot of time together. We all know what we are trying to achieve."
A large part of the playbook will revolve around getting Lewis-Adams the ball this year.
"You gotta find ways to get it to him. Anyone that watches him realizes if we get a good box count of only five or six defenders in the tackle box, he has a great wiggle to him to make some plays and make guys miss," Steinfeldt said. "He is also a very strong guy, which makes him a great runner in heavy sets in short yardage situations. He is a 425-pound squatter and benches 300 pounds. He is a phenomenal athlete and everything you want in a running back."
Alongside Piedra Vista's Beau Clafton, Lewis-Adams hopes to put on a show in District 1-4A this year as he runs the ball, catches passes and locks down the opposing team's best wide receiver while playing corner back.
"I want to do everything in my power to give fans what they came to watch and show Aztec football has what it takes to win," he said. "Beau is a good athlete, and it will be fun reading about what he does over the weekend and compare it to what I have done, whether it is yards he has gained or wins he helped deliver. We are both seniors, and I am hoping (he) and I will be right there against each other all year."
Aztec's offensive line improved each week throughout the 2012 season, and Steinfeldt is confident the group will have a strong showing this year.
"Matt Stalcup returns from last year. He is an undersized player that is an incredible high school football player," Steinfeldt said. "He is very cerebral and can help Crawford get in and out of plays at the line based on the defenses. Justin Slavey also returns from last year and will be very important. He is very physical and worked hard in the weight room all year. Other than them, we have three new guys on the line this year."
Though the line might not be loaded with the biggest guys, Lewis-Adams is confident in their superior technique.
"Everybody is doubting our line size, but Steinfeldt has it figured out," he said. "The concept is not entirely based on size. Those guys are all hard workers, and I wouldn't get any credit if not for them. Stalcup and Slavey take care of business, and my hat goes off to them."
Getting out to a fast start will be difficult again this year for Aztec. The Tigers finished the 2012 regular season 5-4 and narrowly won the District 1-4A championship in a three-way tiebreaker with Piedra Vista and Farmington. But the season started 0-2 and 1-3 after consecutive losses to Los Lunas and eventual state champion Goddard. The Tigers lost those two games by a combined score of 113-28.
This year's schedule opens the same way, and 5A Manzano, which beat Aztec 47-20 last year, once again lurks in Week 5 in what will be the Tigers' homecoming game.
Crawford said this year's team is more prepared for the brutal first four weeks of the schedule.
“I have personally set the goals higher for us this year. I want to carry the team and put all that pressure on myself,” he said. “Last year, we didn't come out too good against Los Lunas and Goddard, but, this year, I think we are definitely ready for both of them.”
Aztec may have an advantage in the district schedule, as both Farmington and Piedra Vista will travel to Fred Cook Memorial Stadium this year. The Tigers will also play two big road games in Albuquerque this year. They play Del Norte at Milne Stadium in Albuquerque and St. Pius X at UNM Stadium in Albuquerque.