Valdosta Daily Times

May 7, 2013

Wildcats back on field, focused on getting better

Ed Hooper
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The Wildcats are back to playing football, even if just for a few weeks.

The nation’s all-time winningest football program, Valdosta opened spring football practice Monday, practicing for over two hours in sunny yet unseasonably cool temperatures.

The day was filled with competition, as the Valdosta coaches set the tone for the 10-day period early and often.

“That is what we want the spring to be about — a competitive environment where we are doing a lot of ones on ones, letting the first team (offense) and first team (defense) go against each other more than you would in the regular season,” Valdosta head coach Rance Gillespie said. “We are just trying to see where we are at and it is a chance to evaluate all of our guys. Some of the kids have changed drastically over the last, what, four or five months since they put on pads.”

No matter what, the key focus this spring is on Valdosta, and nobody else.

“This is all about Valdosta,” Gillespie said. “We worry about us and that is it. We worry about us getting better down after down.”

The Wildcats return some top skill players on offense and a bevy of players on defense, which dominated the team part of practice Monday.

Offensively, the Wildcats are able to build the foundation for the 2013 season, which starts with a scrimmage against Ware County and then the season opener against Thomas County Central, around running backs Malcolm Joseph and Nelson Herring, along with wide receiver Alex Cason.

“We have the two running backs back and that is huge for us, and we have Alex back,” Gillespie said. “Those three guys, at least, give us a starting point at the skill position.”

Up front, the Wildcats are young and inexperienced, with a group of inexperienced quarterbacks behind them.

The key this spring for both groups will be trying to find consistency.

“We saw sparks today, maybe this guy can do it or maybe this guy can do it, but the deal is doing things on a consistent basis, having some consistency,” Gillespie said. “Being able to do it time after time. And whenever you are dealing with young kids, they haven’t been asked to do that; they haven’t been asked to play multiple plays. They’ve spot played in practice.”

At quarterback, the Wildcats have several options. All-State punter and former tight end Mac Loudermilk took the first repetitions with the first team Monday. He will compete against others that include junior Cole Messinghill.

“We just want to see them get better every day that they are out here,” Gillespie said of the group of linemen and quarterbacks. “We want to see them get more comfortable with what they are doing. That was the biggest thing today — they weren’t comfortable. I think that showed.”

Defensively, the Wildcats have a lot of college prospects and a lot of returnees on the field.

Up front, Darius Sapp, who has already received Division I offers, leads the core of defensive linemen. He is joined on defense by linebacker Anthony Smith, Todd Bradley and sophomore safety Tra Barrett, just to name a few.

“We have a good foundation on that side,” said Gillespie, of his defense. “Sapp up front, he sets the pace for us up front. And we have some older guys playing up front. Even though they didn’t start, they got a lot of quality snaps the last few years. The front four is pretty solid. At linebacker, those three guys, in some games, were starters for us. So that is key. They are comfortable. And then we got three out of the four back in the secondary. So we have a good foundation to build on defensively.”

On the first day of spring practice, Gillespie said there “was a lot of rust out here,” but that he liked the day and is excited to how his players can improve throughout the short spring practice.

“We have 10 days to see how far we can get,” said Gillespie, who is entering his fourth season with the Wildcats.

Valdosta’s spring game will be played Saturday, May 18, at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.

The Wildcats finished the 2012 season with a 7-4 record, falling to North Cobb 42-14 in the first round of the state playoffs.