The Valdosta Daily Times
After being the final team standing in the Division II football season last year, the Valdosta State football team was the first team back on the field in 2013.
Exactly two months after winning the Division II national championship with a 35-7 win over Winston-Salem State in December, the Blazers opened spring football practice Friday afternoon in Valdosta.
While the regular season is still seven months away from beginning, the Blazers said they were excited to be back on the field, working towards a repeat championship attempt.
“We want to live and breathe football,” quarterback Cayden Cochran said. “That is why we are out here every single day. We don’t like getting tired of football or workouts....We want to go back and we want to repeat. It should be your goal every year to win a championship.”
Although the season just ended two months ago, the Blazers were still “rusty” during Friday’s practice, according to head coach David Dean.
“It was good to be back out here again, but man we were rusty,” Dean said. “It is amazing what two months off will do. But the energy was good. I thought we practiced good.”
The major concern for the Blazers heading into spring practice is the lack of experience and depth on the offensive line. After losing five starting seniors from last year’s team, Dean said the coaching staff is looking for five players to step up and take charge of the position, and that could start week one at Fort Valley State on Sept. 7.
“That is the key question mark,” Dean said, of the line. “I want to see them come together, play together well. We have to find five guys that we know we can go into the season with. Those guys that are here right now, five of them have to play for us.”
While the offensive line is a concern, there is little concern about the skill players. The Blazers return nearly every weapon from 2012, including Cochran, the team’s top five wide receivers and the two rising sophomore running backs — Cedric O’Neal and Austin Scott.
“We are really confident with the guys that we have coming back,” receiver Quin Roberson said. “But at the same time, anybody can be beat and we know that. So we are going to work just as hard as we did the year before we won the championship.”
With the inexperienced line and a bevy of talented skill players, the leadership on offense will shift from the front five to players like Cochran, who is entering his third year in the program.
“It is going to rely on us a lot,” Cochran said. “We are going to need to grow up as a skill position. There would be times last year where I wouldn’t know what a call was and I would go up to Jake Thomas, our center last year, and I’d say, ‘Hey, what we got here?’ Then he would tell me. That won’t be the case this year. We are all have to get better this year.”
On Friday, those skill players took that step in getting better, says Dean.
“I was very proud of our top skill guys,” Dean said. “The way they came out and practiced. A couple of them are still out here working right now (30 minutes after practice officially ended). It is good to know you have those type weapons back with your quarterback.”
The Blazers practiced for close to two hours Friday, wearing only helmets. They will be in helmets again today and will be in full pads for the first time this spring on Wednesday.
While Cochran has yet to stand behind is new inexperienced line much this spring, he said he has confidence in the group, even though at times it is concerning when thinking about what the team lost after last year.
“It is pretty concerning, but there is nothing we can do but all get better,” Cochran said. “It is not one position. There isn’t a position that is at its best right now.”
With the Blazers opening spring practice not far after winning the championship, players admitted there is still talk of what was accomplished last season, and that they are still enjoying the feeling of winning the championship.
“We are still enjoying it, but at the same time we know we have to get better if we want to repeat,” Roberson said.
One way the team will enjoy the moment will be with a visit to the State Capitol on Feb. 27, when the Blazers will be honored by state legislatures.
“It means a lot,” Roberson said. “It lets you know that your state is proud of you. There are a bunch of schools in Georgia and we are the only ones that are doing that. I am very prideful of that.”
Since VSU started spring practice so close to the end of last year, a few players are not able to participate in spring practice due to injuries.
Linebacker Chris Pope, who led the Blazers with 121 tackles in 2012, will not participate as he recovers from knee surgery. Pope also missed spring drills last year due to a knee injury.
Redshirt freshman Jonathan Hester, a Valdosta native, and Scott Crawford are also injured this spring, and will not participate.
Along with injuries, there is also a group of players that may not participate due to NCAA rules. At the Division II level, players are only granted 10 semesters of eligibility, and several Blazers have just one semester remaining.
In order to keep eligibility, Gerald Ford, Trent McGuire and Dominique Wheeler will not practice this spring and will rejoin the team following the completion of the academic spring semester in May.
The Valdosta State football spring game is March 9 at 11 a.m.