Mike Anthony

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Growing Wings

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Georgia Southern has a storied history of championship-caliber football teams. And while those types of teams usually need to be well-rounded in order to achieve status, it’s been a tradition at Georgia Southern to throw its belief and support of each season’s team in the direction that the offense has gone.

That trend isn’t without reason. Georgia Southern has built one of the strongest and most consistent offensive identities in all of college football as a team that will run an option attack right at opponents and keep running it – win or lose – until it gets results.

So, it’s a bit ironic that Georgia Southern will open up its Sun Belt Conference schedule on Saturday against a Louisiana squad that will be trying to spread the Eagles’ bread and butter onto the Paulson Stadium turf.

Sure, the Ragin’ Cajuns don’t run the triple option, but their seemingly never-ending stable of capable ball carriers have been putting up numbers over the first four weeks of play that rival some of Georgia Southern’s best showings.

Louisiana is rushing for over 300 yards per game and is currently a top-5 rushing team in the nation and leads the entire FBS with 18 rushing touchdowns over its first four games.

And the truth is, the Georgia Southern offense can’t expect to win on Saturday by beating Louisiana at its own game.

Injury questions and ongoing suspensions will continue to limit the maximum effectiveness of the Eagles’ ground game. And even with substitutes playing capably, penalties have continually killed big plays and taken points off the board for Georgia Southern further lessen the effectiveness of its offense.

While every Eagle fan – as well as the players and coaches – hope that Saturday will be a breakout game for the offense, it’s the Georgia Southern defense that could be key to notching a win and getting the Sun Belt season off to a good start.

There’s no question that stopping the ULL run game will be a challenge, but it’s also been proven that the GS defense isn’t one to give up rushing yards easily.

While each of the Eagles’ first three opponents preferred to move the ball through the air, play by the Eagles’ front seven made that their only way to consistently pick up yardage.

Georgia Southern went a long way towards getting itself back on the right track with last season’s 10-3 mark and bowl victory. But one of the common sound bytes coming out of the locker room throughout the offseason was that the team was more focused on how it finished third in its division and lost a pair of games that would have put it in position to win a Sun Belt title.

So, perhaps, it’s fitting that Saturday’s matchup will face a balance of power on opposing sides of the ball that is in stark contrast to what fans are used to seeing at Paulson Stadium.

For everything that has been gained back by the Eagles over the last 13 months, this is still an Eagle team that sits at 1-2, is expected to be a Sun Belt contender, and is an underdog that is expected to get out-rushed in its own house against a conference rival in a few days.

Maybe the GS defense will rise to the occasion and cage up the Cajuns. Maybe the offense will awake and prove that it is still a gold standard for rushing attacks. Hopefully both will happen at the same time.

But regardless of how things eventually play out, the current state of affairs holds true.

Georgia Southern is a team with a lot of promise on both sides of the ball that hasn’t shown its best in either aspect so far.

If the Eagles want to be the Sun Belt contenders they believe themselves to be, both of those units need to start living up to their potential sooner rather than later.

New Chomp For Gators?

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Every college football team enters a season with a plan.

Whether the plan is to contend for a national championship or merely try to make a bowl game, every team has a list of things that need to go right in order to end the season where it expects.

And without exception, a starting quarterback in a leg cast is a huge detriment to any team’s season goals, regardless of how bold or conservative they may have been.

That’s exactly where the Florida Gators now stand. The Gators opened the year with plenty of promise as veteran quarterback Feleipe Franks seemed to have Florida moving in the right direction, but Franks suffered a bad ankle injury in the fourth quarter of the Gators’ victory over Kentucky in one of the first SEC games of the season.

It’s easy to cite the ‘Next Man Up’ philosophy following any injury for a collegiate football team, but Florida has a ton riding on what happens next with Franks out of the picture.

Thrust into the spotlight is redshirt junior Kyle Trask. And – in true Hollywood form – Trask immediately set about pulling the Gators out of the fire.

Florida trailed 24-10 when Franks went down, but Trask ignited the offense, engineering drives that racked up 19 unanswered points that allowed the Gators to escape Lexington with a victory, if not their health.

Trask was able to deal with the immediate problem of replacing Franks on the fly and mounting a comeback, but now sees Florida pondering how it can achieve its goals with Franks done for the season.

For the time being, things should be just fine. Trask proved that he’s capable of commanding the offense. The Gators’ schedule also helps out as Florida hosts Tennessee – which is off to a nightmarish start – this week before taking on Towson out of the FCS next week.

Following that, the real tests begin.

Florida will face Auburn, LSU and Georgia in a four-game stretch that will cover all of October. That would have been a tall order even with the entire depth chart intact, but now the Gators have the task of navigating that top-10 minefield with a backup quarterback.

If nothing else, Trask is at least the same imposing physical figure that Franks was. Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 235 pounds, Trask looked poised in hitting on 9-of-13 passing and bowling in for a rushing touchdown against Kentucky.

Replacing Franks’ big arm might not be possible, but there’s a chance that the injury might force the Gators into a more consistent attack, which is what their fans have been hoping for all along. The playbook will be limited in the coming weeks, but that could be a blessing in disguise.

Most agree that the Gators have top-10 talent all over the field, but that hasn’t shown on the offensive side of the ball in big games.

It may have taken a bad break – literally – but Franks’ injury could unwittingly force Florida into a new offensive direction that keeps them near the top of the rankings and allows them to remain as the only real threat to Georgia in the SEC East.

Wounded Eagles

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Nothing ever goes exactly as planned in football, especially on offense.

To look at a play as it’s drawn up, every run appears to have enough blockers to spring the ball carrier.

Similarly, every pass seems to have plenty of protection and the perfect combination of routes that should lead to a receiver breaking into open space for the quarterback.

Yet, a quick look at even a few plays of any game show that the efforts to move the ball more often resemble a well thought-out plan that tries to hold together as long as possible before dissolving into chaos.

To be sure, the Georgia Southern offense isn’t flailing or in disarray after two games, the current state of the unit isn’t what was hoped for back in the summer.

A lot of that can be chalked up more to who isn’t playing than negative things being done by those who are on the field.

Starting quarterback Shai Werts was knocked out in the first half of the LSU game and remains doubtful to return this week after being held out against Maine.

Slotback Wesley Kennedy III has yet to play a down as he serves out an academic suspension.

Linemen Drew Wilson and Jarod Leeds missed time in preseason camp with concussions while starting tackle Brian Miller was lost for the season with an injury suffered two weeks before kickoff.

And in one final easy-to-see blemish, the second half of Saturday’s game featured a host of wayward snaps that came after starting center Jakob Cooper left with an injury.

For the most part, the scariest injury situation seemed to work out the best for concerned Eagle fans against Maine.

Werts will be welcomed back when he is healthy, but backup quarterback Justin Tomlin looked confident and ran hard on his way to 195 yards of total offense and a touchdown.

But Tomlin also had some sore spots as he contributed to the Eagles’ seven fumbles and seemed less sure of running the option when going to his left.

Cooper appears to be on track to return to the middle of the offensive line this week at Minnesota, but Saturday raised a red flag for Georgia Southern if the need to replace him pops up again. Spring practice featured a constant cycle of potential centers, with all having their trouble with inconsistent snaps.

Aaron Dowdell was called upon against Maine. His efforts keeping Tomlin guessing, ultimately highlighted (or lowlighted?) with a high snap that sent Tomlin scrambling 15 yards backwards and stalled what could have been a game-clinching touchdown in the second half.

As for the rest of the skill position players, the health is good, but the consistency hasn’t shown up quite yet.

Matt LaRoche had a career day with 154 rushing yards and a touchdown on Saturday while Logan Wright went for 114. But J.D. King was held to 16 yards on 12 carries aside from his one rush of 25 and the game plan didn’t appear to be comfortable showcasing any slotback in the manner that would be expected if Kennedy was on the field.

The yo-yoing nature of the Eagles’ early opponents continues this week as Georgia Southern travels to Minnesota.

Another long road trip against a P5 school it is facing for the first time might make it hard to make evaluations of the offense any clearer after this weekend, but the fact remains that continued explosiveness and more overall consistency is needed for the Eagles to end up where they want to be.

 

New Tricks Against Bama?

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Could UGA be shut out of playoff again?

Without a doubt, the University of Georgia is in its golden age. The Bulldogs, seem to have found a generational coach in Kirby Smart, have been dominating the recruiting wars and enter 2019 as – once again – a serious contender for a national championship.

…So when is that oft-presumed second national title of the modern area finally going to arrive in Athens? Because unless the Bulldogs can solve their Alabama problem, this year isn’t going to be it.

Georgia was a powerhouse in 2018. The Bulldogs ran roughshod over everyone in their path during the regular season last fall – save for a hiccup at LSU – and looked to be objectively better than even Alabama in the SEC championship game before the wheels fell off and the Tide rolled to a thrilling comeback victory.

That seemed to be insult added to injury as just 11 months before the Bulldogs had dominated Alabama for one half of the national championship game and was just one defensive stand away from an overtime victory before seeing everything go up in smoke in the form of Tua Tagovailoa hitting DeVonta Smith for a title-winning touchdown.

Last season’s conference title game loss served as a flashpoint for the playoff selection committee to pass along a judgement that – for as much as the SEC values itself – no team is guaranteed a spot in the playoff without a conference championship to its name.

With the ACC (read: Clemson) owning two of the last three national championships and the SEC trending more towards a league that is both top and bottom-heavy, containing few solid and consistent programs in between, there just isn’t a good reason to think that the SEC should have the chance to place two teams in this year’s playoff.

And that’s where the spotlight shines brightest on Georgia.

The Bulldogs don’t play Alabama in the regular season, making it very likely that they’ll be favored in all 12 regular season games.

And unless UGA can beat hyped-up preseason teams like Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Florida while all of those schools have otherwise-great seasons and retain their initial rankings, the Bulldogs will likely run into the same hurdle as before.

If UGA wins the SEC East, it’s most likely that Alabama will be waiting in the conference championship game.

And if Georgia falls to the Crimson Tide for a third consecutive season, even an otherwise great showing in 2019 probably won’t be enough of an argument for UGA to be included in the four-team national championship playoff.

It’s a tough situation for the Bulldogs, but it’s also as simple a proposition as any team could hope for.

Find a way to win the SEC and they’re guaranteed a chance to build on the last two great seasons and possibly attain that elusive national title. At the same time, just about any loss is bound to be the sore spot in yet another great season that doesn’t quite live up to what could have been.

No one doubts that Georgia is one of the best teams in all of college football. But until the Bulldogs can prove otherwise, ‘one of the best’ is all they’ll be.

Knights Playoff Crusade

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

For any P5 school, an undefeated record followed up by a 12-1 showing would be cause for fans and national pundits alike to wonder if a dynasty is on the horizon.

But for a G5 school, even those incredible showings lead to questions about how far it might fall off in the next season.

Such is the plight of Central Florida in 2019.

To be sure, there are plenty of question marks for the Golden Knights as they enter the new season.

Chief among those is the absence of quarterback McKenzie Milton, whose second consecutive Heisman-level season was cut short the day after Thanksgiving last fall due to a devastating knee injury that will keep him out for all of this fall and still has his playing career very much in doubt of ever continuing.

There is also the loss of more than half of the defensive starters from last year’s squad. The Knights were good – but not great – throughout 2018 and will have to find plenty of answers this time around.

If UCF can continue to jump out ahead of opponents, the defensive rebuild will be helped greatly by an experienced secondary that will make life tough on trailing teams trying to rally through the air late in games.

Brandon Moor and Nevelle Clarke return at both corners and Richie Grant is back at safety, giving the Knights a stellar secondary.

But despite the continued absence of Milton, it’s the UCF offense that will once again make the Knights a favorite to win the AAC and continue to loom in the national polls.

Former Notre Dame starter Brandon Wimbush will step into the void behind center and – while not the passer that Milton was – can do plenty of damage on the ground.

Wimbush will be surrounded by the Knights’ top two rushers from last season in Greg McCrae and Adrian Killins, as well as receiver Gabriel Davis and his seven touchdown catches from 2018.

Even more important to the Knights’ continued offensive firestorm, UCF figures to feature, arguably, the best offensive line in the conference. Three All-AAC honorees return to the Knights’ front and can be depended on to keep the chains and the scoreboard moving as Wimbush assumes leadership of the offense.

While the Knights are once again supremely talented, a tough schedule lies ahead and will make their continued presence in the national polls a challenge.

Central Florida has a road date against a pesky Florida Atlantic squad in its second week before hosting Stanford and then traveling to Pittsburgh.

Two weeks later, the Knights travel to fellow AAC front-runner Cincinnati for a nationally televised Friday night showdown.

If UCF can survive all of that, it has a great chance of once again having a great argument for earning better rankings and more consideration for the national championship playoff.

If it doesn’t, the Knights will be the latest G5 team to become the (undeserved) butt of jokes coming from the P5 while suffering a quick fall from grace as pollsters aren’t much for giving the Cinderellas of the college football world the benefit of a doubt.

Eagles To Soar In 2019?

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Georgia Southern offered one of the best turnaround stories in recent history last season as the Eagles rebounded from a program-worst 2-10 mark in 2017 to go 10-3 last fall, capped by a walk-off victory in the Camellia Bowl.

It was one thing to regain success. Now it’s time to see if the Eagles can retain success.

One thing they certainly have retained is plenty of talent. That begins with quarterback Shai Werts, who returns for his third season as Georgia Southern’s starter in its unique option attack.

Werts made national headlines to begin August when he was arrested for possession of cocaine, but the charges were quickly dropped and Werts – as well as the rest of his team – is eager to focus only on football moving forward.

Werts lost a pair of running backs to graduation, but new projected starters Logan Wright and Matt LaRoache saw plenty of quality action last season.

Also returning is junior Wesley Kennedy III. Kennedy has been a playmaking threat since his true freshman season and will be the most versatile weapon at Werts’ disposal as he can run, catch and block from the backfield or lined up out wide.

Perhaps the most important bit of continuity for the offense comes in the press box. Offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse returns for his second year in Statesboro, making this the first season since 2015 where the Eagle offense retains a play-caller from one season to the next.

DeBesse has shown the ability to build an intricate and effective playbook at his previous stops, so with plenty of returning talent and another year’s worth of familiarity with the offense, there are high hopes that the Eagle offense will go from being merely good last season to dynamic and explosive in 2019.

The offense usually grabs all the headlines in Statesboro, but this fall could feature one of the better Georgia Southern defenses in program history.

The Eagles lost key players at every level to graduation, but – much like with their running back situation – there seems to be no shortage of players filling up the depth chart that have plenty of game experience already on their resumes.

Raymond Johnson III and Ty Phillips adjusted nicely to the switch to a 3-4 front last year and will line up at end and nose tackle, respectively, again this year.

Rashad Byrd came on strong in one of the pivotal middle linebacker spots last season and will now be joined by Furman transfer Reynard Ellis, who frequently looked like the best linebacker on the roster while participating on last year’s scout team.

Georgia Southern is replacing a pair of safeties, but there is again plenty of experience to draw from as Kenderick Duncan and Darrell Baker Jr. have both started games and will be joined by two-season Savannah State starter Donald Rutledge who joined the Eagles as a grad transfer.

The corners will be patrolled by the best 1-2 punch in the Sun Belt – and maybe in the country – as seniors Monquavian Brinson and Kindle Vildor have spent the preseason racking up honors. Both are seen as potential NFL draft targets.

A brutal schedule features road trips to LSU, Minnesota, Appalachian State and Troy, but there is no doubting that the Eagles have the talent and coaching infrastructure in place to prove that 2018 was no fluke.

While the Eagles are predicted to finish third in the Sun Belt East behind Appalachian and Troy – the same result as last season – both of those rivals are dealing with overhauled coaching staffs and the Eagles will be waiting in the wings to seize any chance to get back to the top of the standings.

Werts Grounded

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

During every summer, I’m often approached by fans and asked how the football team is doing. There are – of course – all of the quotes that come in about how everyone is getting bigger and stronger for the new season, but I almost always respond to the questions in the same way.

When it comes to the offseason, no news is good news.

If there’s something that grabs headlines ahead of fall camp, it almost always has to do with an injury, eligibility issues or a run-in with the cops.

Georgia Southern fans had those worst fears realized last week as – just minutes before the opening of fall camp – the team made an announcement that starting quarterback Shai Werts was suspended from all football activities following an arrest for speeding and possession of cocaine.

A whirlwind 72 hours followed, and while some things seem much brighter for those hoping to see Werts in action soon, there is also a lot of information that all parties are waiting on.

Georgia Southern made its initial comment on the arrest, but won’t divulge anything more as it is an ongoing legal case. As things currently stand, here is what is known about the situation:

Werts was arrested on July 31 after speeding near Saluda, S.C. He was placed under arrest soon after the police got him out of the car.

While Werts was detained, he was asked about a white substance found on the car hood. He claimed it was bird droppings that he had tried to remove days before. Two separate field test kits returned positive results for cocaine and a charge for possession of less than one gram (a misdemeanor) was added to the initial speeding charge.

Werts maintained his stance on not knowing where the substance came from. He was bonded out of jail and – upon returning to Statesboro – submitted to a drug screening on Friday, Aug. 2. Werts passed the screening and returned to practice with the team on Sunday morning.

No additional information has been released by the Saluda Sheriff’s department and no official update has been given on Werts’ standing with the team. Georgia Southern has maintained that it will proceed by guidelines consistent with the school’s student code of conduct.

So Werts’ situation seems to have improved at least a bit, but now comes the tough part. The legal system can be notoriously slow and – without more information to go by – anyone with an interest in the situation is left to do their best armchair lawyering.

One side will want to know how that substance got on a car if additional tests confirm it to be cocaine. There will also be questions about Werts’ admission to initially exiting the highway when the officer turned to follow him, even if it’s not a crime to make a turn if the officer isn’t identifying himself or attempting to pull you over.

At the very least, there is a question about why the quarterback and emotional leader of an FBS football team is doing 80 miles per hour through a small town just hours before he’s supposed to be in camp.

But there is also a burden of proof.

The report describes Werts and the inside of his car as looking clean. There is also the fact that his screening came up clean and his continued insistence that he wasn’t in possession of anything illegal.

As for now, it would appear that the most boring answer is likely the closest we have to the truth.

There are questions and evidence on both sides. There isn’t enough for the police to press the issue at the moment, but there’s also not enough exonerating information to drop the matter entirely.

The cliche always tells sports fans that there’s a reason they play the games. Frustrating as things are at the moment, that’s also why everyone needs to take a moment and let this issue play out in official legal action instead of social media yelling and rogue internet sleuthing.

Cold October For Braves?

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

There is still plenty of baseball to be played in the 2019 regular season, but thanks to a torrid June and a good July, the Atlanta Braves have placed themselves in prime position to repeat as the National League East champions.

As the Braves dig in for the dog days of August and the stretch run in September, speculation will run rampant as to how the playoffs will shape up.

And with July 31 marking the annual trade deadline and new league rules prohibiting waiver trades during the month of August, playoff contenders will have only their current MLB roster and farm system (along with any unsigned free agents) to turn to as the pressure ramps up.

Regardless of the moves made in the final hours before the trade deadline, the Braves have built a formidable squad.

Ronald Acuna has progressed nicely from his 2018 Rookie of the Year form and 2019 rookie Austin Riley has proven to be a dangerous bat despite a midseason swoon.

Freddie Freeman continues to perform at near-MVP levels while Ozzie Albies is earning every bit of his new contract and the one-year deal struck with Josh Donaldson over the winter is paying big dividends as the third baseman has shown flashes of what made him a former American League MVP.

Without exception, any pitcher taking the mound against Atlanta’s lineup will have to tread carefully.

Unfortunately, the adage still holds true that good pitching tends to beat good hitting in the playoffs. And – in a scenario that seems to be resembling Braves division title runs from 2013 and last season – it could be the arms that prove to be their undoing.

To be sure, the Braves aren’t a bad pitching team. Mike Soroka has already racked up 10 wins in his rookie campaign, Dallas Keuchel is a solid piece in the rotation and Max Fried is quickly becoming a frontline starter.

Meanwhile, Sean Newcomb has found success in later innings since being dropped from the starting rotation and – all hair-raising Luke Jackson appearances aside – the Atlanta bullpen has been better than general complaints from fans would indicate.

But the problem with previous division title winners in Atlanta has been that their pitching just didn’t quite stack up with the rest of the best in the National League, and that issue could prove true once more.

The class of the National League has been the Los Angeles Dodgers, thanks in no small part to their starting rotation.

The Dodgers’ top three all started games in last year’s playoff series win over Atlanta, with Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw combining for 15 scoreless innings against a similarly hot-hitting Braves offense.

Conversely, Braves starters combined to throw just 13.1 innings over the four-game series, allowing nine earned runs in the process.

The potential matchups aren’t much better for Atlanta if a team like Washington gets through the wild card round and brings its rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin to town.

St. Louis is currently making a run to the top of the N.L. Central and – while not boasting top starters – has one of the most dependable bullpens in the league that can shorten up tight postseason games.

None of this is to say that Atlanta can’t win. The Braves have the second-best record in the National League and have proven that they can bash teams into oblivion on any given night.

But baseball purists love to look to the past to figure out what will happen in the future. And in the case of the 2019 Braves, that means that the pitching will have to hit another gear or the bats will need to keep hitting like its summertime for the next three months.

Ware Chomping For 2019

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

From 2012-2016, Ware County underwent its best stretch in school history.

During that span, the Gators won four region championships in five seasons and reached a state title game to go along with a semifinal appearance and two trips to the state quarterfinals.

Ware County has remained solid, but the past two years have seen a bit of a tail off. The Gators are hoping that some new coaching blood brings a shot in the arm to the program as Jason Strickland has now set up shop in Waycross.

Strickland’s resume is an impressive one and one that many in South Georgia are already quite familiar with.

Prior to taking the Gators’ head job Strickland notched winning records at Lamar County, Fitzgerald and Pierce County.

He coached four region champions – including at least one at each of his stops – and his next win will be the 100th of his career against just 39 losses to date.

He will inherit a Gator squad that went 8-4 with a second-place finish in Region 2-AAAAA last season.

Ware County took care of everyone it was supposed to, but dropped games to state powers Coffee and Lowndes before falling to Wayne County in the regular season finale to finish second to the Yellow Jackets in region play for a second straight season.

Last year’s Gator squad overachieved with a young roster, meaning that big expectations await this fall.

As far as returning talent goes, Ware County couldn’t ask for more than seeing Thomas Castellanos back in action. Castellanos was a tour de force in his freshman year, winning the starting quarterback job and tossing 11 touchdowns to just five interceptions.

He also led the team with over 800 yards of rushing and even got in on the other end of the passing game, going for 52 yards and a touchdown on his lone reception of the season.

Castellanos will be breaking in a new receiving corps as his top three pass-catchers have departed, but that could be alleviated by an increased emphasis on the ground game. In addition to Castellanos’ ability to run, the Gators return three others who rushed for at least 280 yards in 2018.

Five of the Gators’ top seven tacklers from last year will return to their starting positions and at least one large chunk of the Ware secondary will remain a no-fly zone as Kevin Weatherspoon returns to his safety spot after hauling in five interceptions to go along with six pass deflections and 46 total tackles from a year ago.

Ware County will kick off its season by hosting Rockledge High School out of central Florida. Rematches with larger classification schools Coffee and Lowndes are back on tap and Region 2-AAAAA could easily come down to the final night of the season once again as the Gators play host to Wayne County on Nov. 8.

The Jesup Buzz

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

For the last two seasons, Wayne County has been the undisputed cream of the Region 2-AAAAA crop.

During that span, the Yellow Jackets have rattled off consecutive region championships with unbeaten marks in region play, as well as a 10-0 regular season campaign last fall and a pair of trips to the second round of the state playoffs.

Some tough losses to graduation and a quartet of region rivals that all appear to be on the upswing will make a region three-peat a tall order, but there’s every reason to count Wayne County as a favorite yet again until another school can prove otherwise.

At the helm for each of the last two seasons has been Ken Cribb, who has done an outstanding job of building the Jackets into a region power when things could have easily gone in a different direction.

The Yellow Jackets reached the state semifinals in 2013 and won a region title in 2014 under Jody Grooms, but the program was thrown into flux when Grooms was charged with theft in 2016. After a year under an interim coach, Cribb took over and immediately found success.

Cribb now faces the challenge of replacing many of the players who have paved the way to success recently. Six starters depart from a defense that was mostly good in 2018, but gave up its share of points.

They’ll be tested early and often as tough non-region games against Richmond Hill and Glynn Academy pop up in the first month.

Offensively, the Jackets can rest a bit easier as dual-threat quarterback Shamar Taylor returns for his senior season. Taylor threw for 1,689 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall while rushing for 247 yards and three more touchdowns.

However, Taylor will have to once again be a star as there is plenty of production left to fill in around him.

Running back and 1,000-yard rusher M.J. Fuller is gone from 2018 and Kaliz Hadley is the only Jacket other than Taylor with more than 200 rushing yards back on the roster in 2019.

Primary receiving target Ashby Cribb (60 catches, 748 yards, 5 TD last season) is also gone, leaving Hadley and Trevin Wallace as the only returners to put up considerable receiving numbers last year.

It will be hard for the Yellow Jackets to duplicate the 32.7 points per game that they averaged during the 2018 regular season, but if new faces are able to step up there should still be plenty of scoring in Jesup.

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