VALDOSTA –– The Valdosta Wildcats will open spring practice today preparing for their 106th football season.
Valdosta head coach Alan Rodemaker enters his fourth season at the helm, looking to build on a promising 2018 season. However, Rodemaker will have to do so following some key departures from last year's coaching staff. Offensive line coach Matt Winslette, wide receivers coach Israel Troupe and linebackers coach Ty Lockett took other jobs in the offseason, but Rodemaker has added a few decorated coaches to replace them.
Bryce Giddens will take over as offensive line coach. Marcus Davis, a wide receiver on the Auburn Tigers' most recent national championship team, will replace Troupe as the wide receivers coach. In the wake of Lockett's departure, Rodemaker tapped former Colquitt County defensive coordinator Jeff Kent to assume the role of linebackers coach.
"Bryce played at Colquitt County, played at Arkansas State and he was an assistant coach at Auburn last year and he's already with us this spring," Rodemaker said. "For wide outs, Marcus Davis is joining us there at wide out –– Marcus was also an assistant coach at Auburn and played wide out at Auburn during their national championship year. He's from South Florida, an excellent football player and he'll be an excellent coach for us in the spring as well.
"Other than that, the only other changes we have is on defense. Ty Lockett was our linebackers coach and he's headed to north Georgia to be at another school and Jeff Kent, who was defensive coordinator at Colquitt County last year, is going to be our linebackers coach."
While it was not a complete overhaul of his staff, Rodemaker admits he's still looking to fill one more position on the staff. With new faces on the staff, Rodemaker also admits there's an adjustment period he and his staff will need during the spring.
"I'm still looking for one coach," Rodemaker said. "Maybe we can work that last position into a kicking coach. We're in good shape other than that. My ninth grade and both middle school staffs are staying intact. ... (The coaches leaving) wasn't extreme. I've never lost fewer than three –– before I started, we lost seven so only losing three or four is pretty good [laughs].
"We've got to get used to each other, but Coach Giddens has been here a while and Jeff Kent's been coming over before and after school. We're growing together and it's been good. They're good football coaches –– I really think we've got an excellent staff. I've always felt good about our staff and it's different. Some of these guys have got different talents than the guys that left, but I don't think we'll drop off as far as coaching is concerned. ... Coach Davis at the wide outs isn't going to join us until spring practice so I really haven't worked with him much yet. Everybody I've talked to said he's a heck of a football coach and I'm excited. I'm expecting big things from him."
The 'Cats finished 8-5 in 2018, advancing to the third round of the GHSA Class 6A State Playoffs before bowing out to Dacula 55-21 last November. Though the season didn't end quite the way they'd hoped, the 'Cats had an explosive year offensively –– averaging 36.4 points per game in a 2018 season that will go down as one of the best offensive outputs in school history.
Defensively, it was quite the opposite for the 'Cats as the team gave up nearly 34 points per game. One of the objectives for Rodemaker and his staff entering the spring practice schedule is developing chemistry and familiarity among his defensive unit to foster improvement.
"Really, what I'm anxious to see is how well we jell defensively and how our offensive line performs in the spring," Rodemaker said. "That's really what these 10 days are about –– shuffling guys, finding out what we can do up front on the offense because we lost four out of five starters up there last year. Defensively, we've got everybody back but in my opinion, we had a really poor year over there and I want to play a lot better on defense.
"We've got a lot of returning guys, but we've got a lot of sophomores that'll be in the mix this year that really couldn't help us as freshmen last year. I expect to start five to eight sophomores on the football team so for that reason, I'm excited. We've got a good sophomore class –– we've got about 50 kids in that sophomore class and they're either starters or backups at every position we've got."
Rodemaker believes the main culprits for his team struggling defensively was inexperience and being lean on talent as opposed to past years.
"I think we were probably a little bit down on talent than we'd had before," Rodemaker said. "And then, inexperience. Some of our better players hadn't played a whole lot and we had really played with the same guys for really three years. The year before the state championship, we had nine starters coming back. Then, the year after the state championship, we had seven starters coming back from the state championship defense so we've played with a lot of sophomores. And then last year, we had nine new guys.
"Even though we didn't perform the way I wanted to last year –– that's on me as a coach as well –– a lot of those guys are back. We've still got some improving to do but they're a year older and a year makes a big difference in a young person's life. ... All those things combined, I thought we really underachieved on defense last year."
Starting quarterback Tate Rodemaker will be back for his senior season after setting the single-season passing yards record last season. Rodemaker has emerged as one of the premier quarterbacks in the state and will once again be counted on to lead the 'Cats offense.
Though they've lost a big part of last season's attack in running back Raje'z Mosley, the 'Cats will return the bulk of their skill players. The bigger learning curve, Rodemaker says, will be along the offensive line which returns only starting tackle Mark Anthony Audain from last year's team.
"We're really gonna miss Rajae'z, because he got a lot of yards on his own," Rodemaker said. "But our offensive line, even though they weren't the most physical offensive line we've had, they knew who to block and they had great experience. They were together, they were a good group, they were a solid corps and they played well together and I think we got the most out of them.
"This year's group, I think we're better physically but inexperienced and I think experience is important with your offensive line. I expect to be better if they can come along, because we've got a bunch of skill back on offense. I'm expecting good things, but we're gonna try to stress them in the spring –– we've got three OTAs we're gonna put them in and we're gonna try to build some experience over the next two weeks of spring and throughout the summer."
Following spring practices, the 'Cats will hold their annual spring game May 17 at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.