May 17, 2013

Spring football: Teams looking for answers

From Sports Staff

— Dalton High School football coach Matt Land expects Jase Chastain, Zek Cobb and Payton Veraldi to be on the field plenty next season.

How much time each sees behind center versus at other positions is the question they’ll answer for him with how they perform over the summer and in preseason workouts.

And even when the Catamounts kick off next season, it’s a quiz the trio — Chastain will be a sophomore, Cobb will be a freshman and Veraldi will be a junior — might be taking from week to week. But Land also indicated he’s not opposed to using more than one during a game by design.

“They each have a different skill set. If this was just ‘Who’s the best quarterback?’ that might be an easy question,” said Land, whose team went 8-4 and reached the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs in 2012. “I think the real question is ‘Who makes us a better football team?’ and we’re not going to know that probably until the fall.”

The Cats closed their workouts with their annual spring game Thursday evening at Harmon Field, and now coaches will begin reviewing video to see what they’ve learned. Dalton returns three starters on offense and five on defense, so there should be plenty of competition for starting positions. It’s a contest that has already started, with Land eyeing spring practice as a time best spent determining who’s ready for a No. 1 varsity spot since there’s no opponent to prepare for anyway.

“We’ve got to find the right 11 on offense and the right 11 on defense,” he said. “... I think coming out of this we got some answers, but at the same time you get as many questions created.”

As for who Land already expects to build around, on defense the list includes lineman Jordan Keener, inside linebackers Lyle Durham and Jay Rockholt, and defensive back Nathan Bryant. On offense, lineman Jake Roberts and tailback Kelvis Rhodes are proven assets.

While replacing experienced players lost to graduation is a typical exercise for football coaches during spring practice, there was plenty about Dalton’s spring that wasn’t typical.

The Cats’ regular practice field is under construction — it’s being replaced with synthetic turf as part of renovations to the school’s track — and the spring game was shifted from today to Thursday because Dalton’s boys soccer team is playing Southeast Whitfield in the Class 4A state championship tonight at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.

For that same reason, the Cats have gone through spring practice without standout linebacker/defensive back Eder Mora, who is also a starting center midfielder for the soccer team.

“I actually feel like (the construction) was a positive,” Land said. “Our kids see that going on and they see an investment being made by our school system and our community in them. Well, there’s a need to give a return on that investment. I saw those guys get a little jacked up every time we went by.”

CHRISTIAN HERITAGE: Lions coach Preston Poag hasn’t had to worry very much about experience as his team has gone through spring drills after its first taste of competition in the Georgia High School Association this past season. What he does worry about is depth.

Christian Heritage loses just two seniors from last year’s squad, but Poag and the rest of the coaching staff are working on numbers and moving closer to being able to two-platoon on offense and defense.

“I have a good group of rising freshmen, and we are working hard to see where they can help us the most,” Poag said. “One of the biggest things we need to do is find people who can at least give us some help and keep some of our guys off of the field here and there for a series or two.”

The Lions faced tougher competition in Region 6-A last season after moving over from the smaller Glory For Christ Football League, and opponents were able to wear them down at times.

“I have to have more depth in my line,” Poag said. “Some of the better teams would be so much fresher than we were in the third and fourth quarter. All of our skill players are back, so we are solid there, but we have to be deeper on the lines. We can’t have those guys going both ways all night without a break.

“The biggest thing about depth is knowing that when I turn around on the sidelines and look for someone to put in, I want to know that I can count on them to get the job done,” he said. “We have had a good offseason and have gotten a lot stronger and a little leaner. Our bench presses have increased dramatically, and that should help us out on the line, especially.”

Quarterback Trevor Brown returns for his senior season, and the Lions have other playmakers such as running back Jake Stokes and wide receivers Nich Bartley and Will Fischer. The learning curve will be much shorter with a year of GHSA ball under the team’s belt.

“The biggest thing they learned from last season is that it is just football,” Poag said. “It might have a little bit better quality in the GHSA, but they went toe-to-toe with all of those teams and had a chance against all of them. We have a great group of seniors, and they will be out front to lead us.”

Christian Heritage’s spring game is tonight at 6:30.

COAHULLA CREEK: During 2012 spring practice sessions, no matter what Colts coach Jared Hamlin and his staff did, there was one thing for which Hamlin couldn’t prepare his team: the speed of the varsity game.

After a season against junior varsity competition in 2011, the Colts faced their first season of varsity games this past fall, and Hamlin said his team simply couldn’t keep up.

“The speed of the game was big for them and a big difference from what they had seen the previous year,” Hamlin said. “We talked about it in the spring and in the preseason to try to make practice faster, but it is hard to simulate that.”

Now, after going through their first season against Region 5-3A competition with a 2-8 record, the Colts have a better understanding of what it takes to compete at the varsity level. And the experience was a harsh teacher.

“Getting 10 games under their belt and seeing how fast the game can be and the reaction speed you need is a big difference-maker,” Hamlin said. “We tried to do that last year, but they had to see it. The tempo has been so much better than it was in the spring last year. They have seen what it is like. I can already tell those things sunk in last year.”

One of the biggest keys for the Colts this offseason has been strength and conditioning, especially on the offensive line. Skill players for Coahulla Creek were solid last year, but without better line play this season it will be for naught again. As seniors next season, offensive linemen Tyler Warnix (5-11, 245) and Hunter Reed (5-11, 235) will have to lead the way up front.

“We are strong in our receiving corps and skill players, and the experience we have coming back has our secondary pretty good,” Hamlin said. “But offensive line is where we have to improve the most. They went through a year where they learned a lot of things. So far, I am seeing good things.”

Quarterback Hunter Williams will return as the starter for his senior season, as will running back Cameron Burton. However, Burton is missing the spring after having shoulder surgery in the offseason.

The Colts will play their spring game on Saturday at 6 p.m.

MURRAY COUNTY: Since being named the Indians’ coach in early March, Chad Brewer has been a busy guy in Chatsworth. While going through conditioning and weight training with the Indians gave him familiarity with his team, getting on the football field over the past two weeks told him a lot more.

With that knowledge, his main focus this spring has been to try to match up skills with positions.

“It has been a lot of installing my systems and player evaluations,” said Brewer, who was the defensive coordinator at Northwest Whitfield this past season after serving in the same role at Southeast for several seasons prior to that.

“When a new coach comes in, everyone has a clean slate. I think that it has been good for some kids to get the opportunity to play in positions they might not have been slotted for in the past.”

Brewer said 85 players have participated this spring, and with a new coach has come a renewed enthusiasm in a program that has won just seven football games over the past seven years.

“We have 30 freshmen out right now, and that is great numbers and shows that people are excited,” Brewer said. “There are some guys that have come out who haven’t played, and when a new coach comes in, you have to push restart. There is some excitement with the numbers and those numbers have continued to hold steady. The big test will be this summer. We have got as much work done as we can since I have been hired, but the summer is big.”

While Brewer and his players are still getting to know each other, Brewer is also dealing with making the transition from being an assistant to having the responsibilities of a head coach.

“The toughest thing now is I have to keep looking at my watch and making sure we are moving along and getting practice running,” Brewer said. “You are so used to a head coach telling you what to do. It is very easy to get caught up in a drill and get behind on something else we need to be working on.”

Still, keeping the enthusiasm built in the few weeks since his hiring is one of the things Brewer hopes to continue in tonight’s scrimmage at 7.

“I want our kids to go out tonight and just really compete and have fun playing football,” Brewer said. “Football and sports are supposed to be fun, and I want to see kids flying around looking like they are having fun playing football again. It will probably be a little sloppy at times because of inexperience in a new system, but if we can see some physicality and excitement then that will be a good spring.”

The Indians play tonight at 7 p.m.

NORTH MURRAY: It wasn’t hard to figure out what the main concern of the Mountaineers’ coaching staff was coming into this spring with the loss of quarterback Brady Swilling to graduation. Swilling was a four-year starter at North Murray, and the Georgia Tech walk-on finished his senior season with more than 3,000 yards of total offense.

While his yardage can be replaced in other ways, Swilling’s game savvy was perhaps his greatest asset.

“The thing about Brady is it seems like he was a starter for six years,” said coach David Gann, who only had Swilling for one after being hired in spring 2012. “Every position is different from QB. You have to be poised and calm and Brady had so much experience in games. We lost a pretty good quarterback, and whether it is a middle school, high school, college or the NFL, a lot of your success is going to depend on your quarterback. These kids we have going for the spot have played in games, but you can’t teach that experience.”

Three players are vying for the job and two have a little quarterbacking pedigree. Peyton Swilling is Brady’s cousin and the son of former Murray County and Furman quarterback Hugh Swilling. Hinton McConkey’s father is former Dalton quarterback Benji McConkey. The other player in the running is Jordan Adams, a sophomore who transferred from Dalton.

“All three of them have different things they bring to the table,” Gann said. “All are getting reps with the first team and we still don’t have a starter. They are all great athletes, so they will all be on the field somewhere.”

Another area of concern is in front of the quarterback. North Murray lost four starters on the offensive line, and finding depth there has been a big point of emphasis.

“One good thing is the freshmen and junior varsity teams both went undefeated last year and the younger kids have a lot of experience and success and have had a full offseason in the weight room. They will not be as big as the line we had last year, but we will be a little bit quicker.”

With a strong linebacking corps returning, new defensive coordinator Courtney Braswell is installing a 3-4 scheme, switching from last year’s 4-3 look.

North Murray plays its spring game at 7 tonight.

* NORTHWEST WHITFIELD: Replacing quarterback Silas Ledford and wide receiver O’Shea Hill, who shined as seniors this past season, won’t be easy for the Bruins.

But Northwest coach Josh Robinson loves the rising junior class and believes it will fill most of the vacancies.

Northwest finished 6-4 last season with a heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Gilmer in the Region 7-4A “play-in game,” keeping the Bruins out of the state playoffs. Using a spread offense, the Bruins averaged 28 points per game, and in their 4-3 base defense — led by tackle Isaiah Mack, The Daily Citizen’s 2012 All-Area Football Player of the Year — they allowed 18.4 points per game.

This spring has been all about making minor personnel adjustments on defense and filling two major playmaker roles on offense.

Caleb Shiflett, who will be a junior next year, is the No. 1 quarterback “right now,” Robinson said, but Andy Whisenant, who will be a senior next season, “is also in the mix.” Should Shiflett win the starting job, it would be “the first time in a while” that a non-senior holds that position to start the season, Robinson said.

Whisenant and Tevin McDaniel, another senior next season, are expected to be the options at receiver. Both are starters in the secondary — Whisenant is a safety and McDaniel is a cornerback — who will be starting for the third season in a row.

“They’ve got to play on offense,” Robinson said. “They’re too talented not to.”

Everything else is up to the class behind them. Jacob Webb, Jamon Horne and Kyle Fleming will see time in the offensive backfield.

On defense, Clay Phillips should fill the other safety spot — opened when Seth Pierce did not return to the team — and a handful of upcoming juniors will fight for the other cornerback position left vacant by Kaleb King, who was another standout senior in 2012.

“Our sophomore class is great at the skill players and I expect those guys to contribute in some fashion this year,” Robinson said.

Edwin Hernandez will compete for one defensive end position and Dexter Stamper will shift between defensive end and middle linebacker. Caleb Bowie, a senior next season, is moving from middle linebacker to defensive end. Cyrus Addison, a sophomore next fall, will fill one of the outside linebacker spots.

The Bruins play Monday at 6:30 p.m.

SOUTHEAST WHITFIELD: In their first season under coach Sean Gray, the Raiders matured over the course of the schedule, winning two of their last four contests and leading both Dalton and Cedartown before falling in their final two games of the season as part of a 2-8 record.

Now, with just more than a year of Gray directing the program and a full offseason of strength and conditioning workouts behind them, the Raiders are bigger, faster, stronger and ready for a successful 2013 campaign, Gray said.

“Our numbers are up, and we have gotten a lot stronger,” said Gray, who has been leading 118 players through spring drills. “At Christmas we had one squatting 400, now we have eight kids doing that. We had no one benching 300, we have a few guys who can do that. We feel like we have gotten a lot stronger. We are looking at, by the end of summer, 15 kids squatting 400.”

While the team has gotten stronger and has a good core group of skill players returning, Gray said the most immediate concern this spring is on the defensive line, where four seniors from 2012 must be replaced.

“(Defensive line) is what the coaches talked most about coming into the spring,” Gray said. “We feel like we have some guys that are going to be able to step in and fill those shoes. We have about six or seven guys competing at those four spots.”

Michael Pierce, who will be a senior, and rising juniors Martin Nunez, Austin Beavers, Hunter Floyd and Chaz Payne will be counted on the most to fill those gaps.

The strength of the team will come from its skill positions. Blake Foster and Rhett Harper, who have started in some fashion since their freshman season, will be seniors. Foster is at running back, while Harper will return at quarterback, a position he filled at the end of the season when Foster was injured. Harper suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year’s Dalton game, but he is expected to be cleared in the next few weeks.

“He is chomping at the bit, and I am chomping at the bit to see him on the field,” Gray said of Harper, who missed the basketball season and saw very limited time on the baseball diamond. “We put him back there last year, and he just always seems to make the right decisions.”

The Raiders will play their spring game on Monday at 7:30 p.m.

— Compiled by Marty Kirkland, Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield.