VALDOSTA –– Valdosta State football opened fall camp and is looking to find itself.
With the conclusion of the 2018 season the Blazers graduated a large senior class.
The departure of players like Stephen Denmark, Jeremy King, Stewart Spence and Raymond Palmer leaves a hole in the structure of the Blazers.
Those tenured players led on and off the field and were a main reason why VSU was able to become national champions last season.
As Gary Goff enters his first season as head coach of the Blazers, he’ll be looking for similar quality players to step up.
“I think we all know that we’ve got a lot of talent,” Goff said after Day 1 of camp. “That is only going to take us so far. We’re really working on our schemes but developing leadership as well. If we get that leadership developed from within this team and this team is a group of tight knit brothers, then the sky is the limit for us. That is always the difference between a champion and someone that has a decent season.”
To find leaders, the Blazers have to be held accountable. Whether it is through drills, post-work out treatments, conditioning or how they treat the locker room and field, players are going to be tested throughout the fall. In order for the team to truly reach its full potential, they have to have good leadership and Goff is still accessing that.
“What we define a leader as is those individuals that number one, holds themselves accountable first and number two, holds their teammates accountable,” Goff said. “If you can’t do those two things you’re not a leader. Not everybody is a leader and that’s okay. Some guys are just great soldiers—there’s no problem with that. We’re going to throw adversity at them in all forms and fashions and see how they handle it. That’s how you really find out that guy is all in. X’s and O’s are very important right now, we’re getting better at it everyday with every snap, but it’s more about this leadership right now.”
The initial burden will fall onto Rogan Wells, who is the reigning Gulf South Conference Offensive Player of the Year and Harlon Hill runner-up.
Wells attended the Manning Passing Academy this summer as a camp counselor among other top quarterbacks across the nation. The experience gained can help with his leadership qualities throughout the season.
“Talking to Peyton and Eli (Manning) really just taught us how to be better teammates and leaders on and off the field,” Wells said. “I picked up a few things from that so hopefully I can put it to good use.”
Because of his quiet demeanor and unassuming personality, it is a burden that Wells cannot bear alone and will likely require other vocal veterans to assist with shaping the team.
Luckily for Wells and the rest of the Blazers, other quality players have already started to stand out. Players like Adonis Sealey and Brian Saunds have made their presence known, often relaying messages throughout the team.
For Sealey, it’s just about filling the shoes that were left by King.
“Last year, (King) was one of our vocal leaders so I felt like being behind him and taking his leadership role –– I feel like it’s my job to step up and be a leader and a voice of this team,” Sealey said.
Although they are in the process of learning a new system, the Blazers’ offense remains a threat. They’ve returned a large portion of the offense that led the nation in scoring at 52 points per game. That same offense set a new conference record for points scored in a single season with 728 points through 14 games.
With the addition of the new freshman class and a group of transfer players, the Blazers have a chance to be even better offensively.
Now, as they maneuver a new playbook, new teammates and new coaches they’ll attempt to duplicate the results from last season.
“Really, nobody’s spot is solidified,” Sealey said on getting new players accustomed to VSU. “Just working hard, you just make the bus. It’s new faces but I think the coaches did a real good job of recruiting. Brought in some real good guys and I feel like we’ll be good as long as hard work is the main objective for everybody on this team.”
While the offense received a lot of the fame last season it can’t be understated how reliable the Black Swarm was. The Blazers’ defense was able to pick up the slack in the moments that they needed too and were a component in going undefeated last season.
But that was then.
Now, the Blazer defense is without many returning players but leaders always find a way to rise to the top.
“Getting put in a leadership position it always becomes something new for everyone,” senior linebacker Nick Moss said. “It’s a new challenge everyday. It was brought up as soon as Coach Goff came in, ‘We need leaders.’ They were trying to find out who the leaders were. There was a big thing on our last team. We had a lot of senior leaders and they lead us in a great way. They’re definitely the reason that we made it to the championship. So I’m just trying to look at what them guys did and take on what they did and try to lead this team to another one. That’s just my goal, lead them to another championship.”
As always with the first days of practice, passes were missed, balls were dropped, and routes were run incorrectly. Players are still learning assignments and attempting to get familiar with new schemes and systems.
And this is the first action that most of the team has seen since the spring game in April.
Despite the new faces, leaders and coaches, the Blazers are still well-regarded throughout the conference.
VSU enters the season as favorites to repeat as conference champions according to the preseason coaches poll.
Nine Blazers made their way onto the preseason all-conference team. Rogan Wells, Seth McGill, Jamar Thompkins, Kenny Benjamin, Lio’undre Gallimore and Adonis Sealey were offensive selections.
Joe Mozone and Jameon Gaskin were defensive selections while Pippin Davis was selected for special teams.
Through all of the hype and excitement Goff’s goal is set for the fall camp. When asked to describe his expectations for the camp with one word he replied with “accountability.”
The Blazers will work their way to a fully padded practice on Aug. 13 before the first team scrimmage on Aug. 14.