VALDOSTA – The Valdosta Wildcats wrapped up the first week of spring practice with a spirited session Saturday at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
For 'Cats head coach Shelton Felton, laying the groundwork for the 2022 season this spring has been a breath of fresh air without the cloud of last year's sanctions hanging overhead.
"It's great to get out here and run around," Felton said. "The kids had a great offseason in the weight room lifting weights. It's always good to be south Georgia football. Ain't nothing like getting out here, running around, getting a little contact and getting back to coaching on the grass with no restrictions."
Heading into last season, Felton admitted it was difficult at times to keep the team motivated facing a postseason ban for the first time in school history.
Through the first week of spring camp, the energy has been up and the number of players in uniform, Felton says, has seen an uptick as well.
"It's been well," Felton said of the energy he saw the first week. "It was hard the first day, which was to be expected because it was real hot. Every day, they battled through. It's been really good. The energy's been good. Participation and the numbers have been really good."
The 'Cats finished 4-6 last season and lost several key pieces to graduation.
One of the biggest question marks coming into the year is the quarterback position. Jo Jo Gardner opened the season as the team's starter, but eventually left the team after the team's non-region win over Tift County last October.
With Gardner's backup, freshman Todd Robinson, not quite ready to contribute, the team found ways to work around their glaring hole at quarterback by adopting wildcat sets, running more run-pass option plays and practically abandoning the passing game entirely.
Gardner is back in the fold this season, along with newcomers Zane Smith and Ansel Clark to give the 'Cats several options to look at throughout spring and into the summer.
According to Felton, Robinson will serve as the team's starting quarterback through the spring.
"Right now, we've got a slew of guys playing quarterback," Felton said. "Right now, we're going with Todd Robinson – the young guy, a freshman about to be a sophomore. Very athletic. He's been really good in the pocket, controlling the offense. We've still got Jo Jo (Gardner); he does a great job. We've got Zane Smith and one of our most impressive guys, our eighth-grade quarterback Ansel Clark – he's got great composure, he's the future. But right now, we're putting the ball in Todd's hands and going with it."
Robinson looked much more confident during Saturday's practice, making quick reads and finding receivers as well as showcasing surprising speed to break a long touchdown run around the edge untouched.
Felton believes Robinson getting a full offseason and weightlifting program under his belt heading into his sophomore year has paid early dividends.
"I think another year in the offseason, the weight room and getting in there with the guys has helped him develop better leadership," Felton said of the young quarterback. "He's more calm and he's earned the respect of the guys in the weight room. I think that's helped him a lot."
Another area of concern for the 'Cats will come on the defensive side of the ball. The 2021 Valdosta defense allowed its fewest points per game (16.0) since the 2014 season.
Having lost 11 seniors from that group, Felton has returning defensive end Eric Brantley and incoming senior and University of Georgia commit Gabriel Harris anchoring a young but talented defense.
Among the seniors lost was cornerback Jadarian Rhym and safety Isaiah Holland. Though its still early into the spring, a couple of names to keep an eye on are upcoming junior cornerback Jaylen Bentley and sophomore safety Khalil Mollay.
"Last year, we lost a lot of great seniors on defense. We're very young on defense, but we're led by one of the best players in the state of Georgia in my opinion in Eric Brantley. Gabe Harris, who's learning the system, he's another good one. We've just got to rally around those two guys.
"A surprise so far has been Jaylen Bentley. He's a physical, nice sized safety. (Khalil) Mollay has been really good. We've got some good young guys. The biggest thing is to get them caught up on the plan and the schemes. Not having playing time is something different, but right now, we're very young on defense but we've got a lot of energy and we're playing with a lot of speed."
In addition to the secondary, the 'Cats saw losses at the linebacker position with the departure of leading tacklers Jacquez McGowan, Jaylin Berrian and Edward Carter.
Felton likes what he's seen from upcoming junior Amari Tomblin, whom he already touts as the leader of the linebacking corps, along with upcoming seniors Nehemiah Dennis and Jarius Curry at middle and outside linebacker.
"We're really thin at linebacker right now. We've just got to find a good fit," Felton said. "We moved (Jontavious) McGriff to linebacker. He's looking pretty good for the first week. We've still got to grow and get better at that position. That has to get a lot better."
With three more practices until Friday's spring game, Felton has preached the importance of valuing the fine details on both sides of the ball.
"I'd just like to see these guys get better at the little details – be very detailed and have better communication as a whole on both sides of the ball," Felton said. "Getting on and off the field, doing things the right way, better attacking on offense, having better ball security on offense, better tackling on defense – the little things. We can fix the rest during the summer, but during the summer, you can't be in full pads. We've got to get those details down pat before the spring game."
Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.