MOULTRIE – The only thing that isn’t new is the enthusiasm for high school football and the expectations for a big Colquitt County High Packer season.
As for everything else, well, the indoor practice facility still has that new car smell. Same holds true for the on-campus weight room. The only thing that’s missing is a state championship banner from 2017 with which to christen in all of this newness.
And even in May that still does not sit well with head coach Rush Propst. If ‘unfinished business’ ever meant anything, it does in Moultrie with the days counting down to mid-August’s Corky Kell Classic. The Packers should finally get to take their first steps into yet another brand-new building.
Come Tuesday morning, it will be time to throw on full gear and go head-to-head with each other in the first of 10 allotted days of spring football practice. This will put the new facilities – both inside and outside – to full use for the first time.
“Obviously the way the year ended was traumatic,” said Propst. “One that you don’t ever get over.”
The Packers were on their way to a fourth state championship in school history – third under Propst – only to have a series of events go in favor of North Gwinnett. That included a penalty on the last timed down of the game that allowed North Gwinnett to try – and make – a 38-yard game-winning field goal.
Things happened even in May to bring Propst back to that moment. He quoted Brett Brown, head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, from a press conference after his team was eliminated from the NBA Playoffs by Boston.
“You hate to lose more than you like to win,” said Propst. “That’s such a true statement. I look at the losses (in my career) way more than the wins.
“So there’s been a renewed energy, a higher expectation level with this group because we have so many of them back. We have to replace a quarterback I thought was a good player.”
For the third season in a row, Propst and the Packers will go with a first-year starter to run the offense. Jay Saunders and Steven Krajewski had their senior seasons as starters, and now the job goes to junior Jaycee Harden.
“I think he’s up to the task,” said Propst. “He’s a kid who wants to do well. Comes from a good family. He wants to be a leader. He has every right to be the guy.”
Spring practice is Harden’s first chance to take those reins as his own. As Krajewski’s back-up in 2017, Harden was lauded for his attention to detail while studying game films. His most extensive playing time on varsity came in the non-region home win over Roswell after Krajewski’s minor injury. The only pass Harden threw in that game was for a touchdown.
These 10 practice days also give others a chance to work at the position and build the depth chart. Propst said Tucker Pitts, a sophomore, will get reps as will receiver Marvion McDonald.
“It’s Jaycee’s job to lose,” said Propst. “I don’t see him losing the job unless he just doesn’t come out and perform. I see no reason for him not to.
“I watched him in baseball. Him being successful in baseball will give him more confidence to be successful in football. Dual sport athletes are better athletes to count on way better than a one-sport athlete. I want to say 90 percent of the (NFL) first-round picks were dual sport athletes. You look at Major League Baseball and see where it’s heading. Everybody tells me they would rather sign a kid in baseball that’s played another sport. One helps the other.”
Harden, midway through the 2018 baseball season, became Tony Kirkland’s starting first baseman. There is so much more of him to see at the varsity level in football, and Propst wants him to learn at a steady pace.
“I think he needs to manage the offense,” said Propst. “Not try to do too much. Learn as we go. It’s a process. I know that’s a Nick Saban term, but I’ve been saying it’s a process for 30 years. Every day, you put your work in mentally and physically. You don’t try to get ahead of yourself. If Jaycee will just be himself, do what he does best, he has a great supporting cast.”
Whichever side of the football you want to focus on, nobody can say the 2018 Packers won’t be loaded. This spring, Propst said there’s so many they know can play football, the big focus will be on building depth and future starters.
The offensive front, he said, maybe the deepest ever with four college prospects already: Kam Bell (offers from Alabama and Florida), Will Rykard, Kam Barnes and Jerrick Davis.
“For the first time I can ever remember, we have good back-ups,” said Propst. “Rykard and Barnes are not going to go through spring because of injuries. We don’t have to see them in the spring. We are going to get other guys ready.”
The tight end depth is led by returning starter Josh Hadley. Carter Boatwright and Remon Young back him up, and that can lead to numerous tight end sets.
At receiver, Propst said they may lack the elite speed – certainly the experience and shiftiness of Cam Singletary – but he said they have quality players here who are young. There is McDonald, KT Wilson and J’Naz Graves, then the coach is big on sophomore Lemeke Brockington and freshman Tajh Sanders, who could spice up the kick return game.
That’s just outside threats. The inside receivers are Tyrique Williams and Tyler Walker, and that leaves Propst and staff to figure out what to do with athletes like Najarien McWhorter. He said 6-2 Desmond Davis, who didn’t play last year, could be one of the best Packers ever.
Then we get to the backfield and all those college prospects. Daijun Edwards and Ty Leggett will be in their third season as a pair. Propst said Leggett has offers from Marshall and Pittsburgh, and Edwards will be the No. 1 running back in Georgia for the 2020 class. He said Montavious Ponder is going to the backfield and could remind folks of Ty Lee from 2014-15.
Spring means the return of Kaleb Spradley at right tackle. He missed last season to injury. After that, there are still linemen Propst sees as “players.” The Packers will go both in the morning and afternoon to get everyone some chances.
On the defensive side, it can be overlooked who all are back when considering the absence of the super-athlete JJ Peterson plus safety Kaleb Dawson.
“I think Kam Woods is going to be a phenomenal safety,” said Propst. “JoJo Madison, backing him up, has a chance to be good.
“The corners are outstanding.”
That’s Jay Ward and Nyquan Washington, who basically took over those slots midseason and intercepted passes everywhere. Even Woods had a bit of playing time and recorded takeaways.
The coach is looking at strong nickel play from Akeem McKiever and Camari ‘Juicy’ Louis. Linebackers are Kendrick Neloms, Marcus Anderson, leading tackler Rashad Revels, Biron Silas, Ty French and Callon Kubiak. What it comes down to is the Packers have seven guys for three spots.
Brian Merritt’s built a huge legacy already in two years as a defensive end, but he too will miss the spring to nurse a broken foot. They will miss Kyante Rivers at tackle, but Kree Herring emerged in a supporting role as did Nathan Bell. There’s two linemen named Ryles (twin brothers) and Michael Roberts. Again, eight defensive linemen for three spots.
“When you have that depth, and throw in an All-American kicker (Ryan Fitzgerald),” said Propst … Wait, there is a question mark for the Packers, who will replace the steady long snapper Noah Hightower? “And who’s going to be the punt returner. We know who the kickoff returner is (Leggett). Having consistency in snapping and punt catching, and developing depth knowing our No. 2 units on both sides need to be worked this spring. Not that we’re not going to give our No. 1s work … we will be careful with Leggett and Edwards. We know Jay Ward can play. Revels we’ll protect a bit.”
By protect, Propst means certain players – even Bell and Louis – won’t be involved in heavy scrimmage work, instead getting limited reps. He said he’s never done that, but, the theme seems to be ‘We know they can play.’ He said it would be different if this were the summer or fall and a game was on the horizon. Summer workouts begin June 11.
“We need work,” said Propst. “We are going to work. There’s a lot of dedication. Who is going to set their alarm and get up? Who is going to be here and be held accountable? That weeds out people who are lazy, who don’t care about football.”
There will not be a scrimmage game this spring against another school, so the Packers have two intrasquad scrimmages at Mack Tharpe Stadium. The first is May 19 at 10 a.m. and the other is May 25 at 7 p.m.
The coaching staff is also filled pending some board approval; Colquitt had four vacancies during the offseason.
“We did a pretty thorough interview process,” said Propst. “Bringing in people who fit in what we want done. Staff chemistry is so important, probably the most important thing you have. I want that to be better this year.”