AURORA — He scanned the weight room and could nearly count everyone on two hands. There were 12 kids. You can't build a football program with 12 kids. Twelve kids is barely enough to field an offense.
"All of a sudden," Justin Hoffman said on Monday, "it was a kick to the gut."
It was the day after the football coach had been introduced to his new players at Smoky Hill last winter. Thirty-five kids came to the introduction. Not great, but better than 12.
"You start thinking, 'Oh, what'd I do?' " said Hoffman, who was hired in January.
The football coach spent six seasons heading nearby Gateway, where he had transformed a program that went 0-9 in 2007 to one that went 7-3 last season. And then traded that in for a place where football wasn't a priority.
Or so it seemed.
The following day, 15 players showed up to the weight room.
"And the next day, there was 17," Hoffman said. "And the next day, there was 19."
A slow trickle turned into an open faucet. By the time the spring sports ended their season, more than 60 players were showing up to work out. To put that number in perspective, Smoky Hill's program ended last season with a combined 31 players between its varsity and junior varsity teams.
"Now," said running back Tylor Brown, a senior, "what he’s done is basically made us compete. Former years, it was usually only the seniors that would start on varsity, and now he’s giving everybody a chance to play on that varsity level. That’s a huge difference."
Smoky Hill has a rough enrollment of 2,300, and is a large Class 5A school. Thirty-one players isn't enough to make a large 5A program viable. And though the Buffaloes went 4-6 last season, they are 13-35 since 2008.
"First thing we did is we were like, ‘You can’t change anything from the past. We’re moving forward,' " Hoffman said.
When practice opened on Monday, Smoky Hill did so with 76 players. Most of that growth is due to the seniors, who helped recruit other students in the hallways and on Twitter.
"We were all excited," said quarterback Trent Clay, one of those seniors. "We were like, ‘Hey, are you going to come out for football?’ Kids are excited and everybody’s hearing about what we’re doing. It’s great."
Added running back Isaiah Alexander, another senior, "He inspired us to go out there and get people."
And while "it doesn't feel all the way right," Brown said, "because we know we should have 100 kids out here," Hoffman has numbers to play with. It's part of the reason he calls Smoky Hill a "top-7 job in Colorado." A school this size could quickly become very relevant in 5A.
His players know it starts in practice.
"Last year (during practice), there was a lot of standing around and just people hanging out on the sidelines, not doing any drills," said senior Frank Thomas, last year's leading receiver. "Now, you can look at any drill, and if somebody’s not involved, some of the seniors or juniors will yell at them, ‘Get in the drill!' "
Now, practice is merely an extension of what Smoky Hill does.
"Before he arrived," Clay said, "there wasn't a culture built up. I feel like everybody played football but we weren't exactly a football family. We didn't do anything together. We practiced together, but that was about it. I think when coach Hoff came, he really emphasized family and culture and bonded us together."
The Buffaloes open the 2013 season against Hoffman's old Gateway squad.
"I’m glad it’s Week 1," Hoffman said. "If it was Week 9, I think it would kill me."
This year, Hoffman will stray — slightly — from his rush-heavy attack. In 2012, Hoffman's Gateway team threw the ball just 14 percent of the time. At Smoky, his offense will be closer to a 60-40 rush-to-pass split — especially considering the Buffs return Clay, who threw for 1,500 yards last season, and Thomas, who hauled in 34 passes and six touchdowns. There's also Dominique Carrasco, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Kansas with speed and a 30-inch vertical jump who will play wide receiver.
Ah, but the option offense isn't totally going away. Hoffman has three running backs he's fond of — Brown, Alexander and Malik Pompey — and he said he'll rotate each through to keep them fresh.
"We've got some kids that can be part of something," Hoffman said.
Photo gallery: Smoky Hill opens football practice