VALDOSTA -- It's a Wildcat's favorite part of the late winter.

Spring football practice starts this afternoon at Valdosta High. Wildcat players are ready to put on the pads and get on the field for the first time since they stood on the Georgia Dome turf in the Class AAAAA semifinals more than two months ago.

Head coach Mike O'Brien and the Valdosta coaching staff, still very much intact, are ready to get to work, and prepare for another fall of football, the 800th win in school history (more than likely to occur this fall) and, they hope, a run at another state championship.

Spring practice runs the next two weeks, and will culminate next Friday with the annual spring scrimmage. That will be the last football for the 'Cats until late July.

It's just a couple of weeks of practice, but for Valdosta, it's an important two weeks.

"We're trying to look at the kids, and figure out where to put people," O'Brien said. "We'd like to see where players are going to fit heading into camp (in July)."

Last year, spring practice was vital to the Wildcats' eventual success in the fall. O'Brien and the coaches opened up competition at every position, and gave every player a chance to win a starting job. Much to the coaches' pleasure, the competition was intense. Even two-year starting quarterback Jarod Alford temporarily lost his job, though he regained it in the fall.

The results were positive, and clear. O'Brien and others said it made players better. Valdosta responded with its best team since the 1998 state champions as key players emerged.

Six players who hadn't been starters in 2000 became first- or second-team all-region players. Esau Bauknight emerged as an all-state wide receiver. Several rising sophomores, playing in front of the varsity coaches for the first time, earned playing time in the fall by virtue of their spring showing. And the coaches got an idea who would be filling the holes left by graduating seniors.

This year, the Wildcats hope the spring is just as productive, and maybe more so.

"I'm hoping we'll be better this year," O'Brien said. "We had a good year last year, but we didn't win state, and that's our goal.

"We've already got a lot of kids working hard, and that's encouraging."

While much of the 2001 Wildcat team will be returning in 2002, there will be several big losses. Alford, an honorable mention all-state quarterback, will be tough to replace, along with Bauknight and all-state linebacker Andrew Braley.

Also gone are three running backs, two more receivers, two starting offensive linemen, and four of their top five defensive backs.

The most notable competition will be at quarterback, a competition which O'Brien says is wide open. The most-experienced QB is fleet-footed Cedric Hatten, who ran for 155 yards last season in mop-up duty. The 5-foot-7 Hatten is primarily a running quarterback, more like '98 QB Carlos Gatlin than the 6-foot-4 strong-armed Alford. All-region safety Eric Williams and rising junior Garrett Rowe are two other who will get looks behind center.

"At quarterback, we're going to take a look at Cedric Hatten, who'll be a junior, and Garrett Rowe, also about to be a junior," O'Brien said. "We'll also give Eric Williams a look, and hopefully one of them will show us the maturity to win the quarterback job.

"We've got a number of starters back. Most of our starters on both lines are back, which we didn't have last year. At running back, we've got Corey (James) and a few others. Braley will be a tough loss, but we've got Eric Thomas coming back, and Marcus Brooken and James Neal. We've got to replace three defensive backs, but we've got guys who played a little last year. We're still looking for someone to step up at receiver."

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