With kickoff of the 2011 football season now less than a week away, Bulloch Academy followers have to be excited about what this year could bring.
The Gators have been steadily progressing in the last few years. In 2008, Bulloch reached the GISA state semifinals. The next season brought the Gators’ first region title in a decade, and last season saw Bulloch reach the state playoffs despite moving up to the highest classification and playing in the toughest region in the state.
“We always have winning as our ultimate goal,” said BA coach Ronnie Hodges. “We can’t worry about injuries or other teams. Those are things that are out of our control. All we can do is work hard and be ready to win each week.”
The Gators are looking to keep up with their winning ways this season, although they’ll have to do so with the help of many new faces.
This spring, head coach Clint Morgan parted ways with Bulloch Academy to help Frederica start its new football program. After seven seasons assisting Morgan, Hodges has stepped in to take the reins.
Hodges’ familiarity with Gator players has smoothed the transition, but his new offensive scheme has had his team putting in long hours over the offseason in order to be prepared for the regular season.
Ditching the flexbone, triple-option attack that Morgan had engrained during his tenure, this year’s Gators will line up in an I-formation. One thing that won’t change is Bulloch’s insistence on having a strong running game to rely on.
“We’ll still be a running team,” said Hodges. “This is just a little different look to it. We’ll still run a good bit of the option, but hopefully we can be a little more diverse with running and passing from the I-formation.”
Drawing up the new offense is one thing, but finding the players to run it is another challenge altogether.
Last season marked the final year for Gator quarterback Brandon Walker, who spent three seasons under center. Also departed from last season are top running backs Lestonz Lewis, Ellis Lane and Morris Prince.
Directing the offense this season will be junior Loy Waters, with Chris Young, Harrison Averitt and Jaylen Evans taking turns toting the ball and serving as receiving threats from out of the backfield.
“It’s certainly a challenge to have to replace your entire backfield,” said Hodges. “Loy has been our guy all summer and has looked good. Things are starting to come around. One thing that really helps is that we return our entire offensive line this season. Having experienced guys doing their jobs up front makes things much easier while we’re trying to get everything else straightened out.”
On the defensive side of the ball, more holes from graduated seniors must be filled as last year’s leading tackler James Brack is gone along with fellow former starters Jonathan Lumpkin and Blaine Lovett.
As the top returning tackler from last season, Waters will be asked to head up the Gator linebackers in addition to his new responsibilities under center. Playing a quarterback on defense has its potential drawbacks, to be sure, but Waters’ experience and ability outweighs the risks as the Gators search for on-field leadership.
Helping Waters defensively will be Caleb Bohannon, whose 39 solo tackles in 2010 was tied for third among all Bulloch defenders. Bohannon is likely out until mid-September after offseason surgery on an injured leg, but will provide an intimidating force along the line when he returns.
Bulloch will need to find its stride quickly as it plays just two non-region games before venturing into the heart of their schedule.
The Gators’ toughest test will come in the four week span ranging from September 16 through October 7 in which they will face the other three playoff qualifiers from Region 1-AAA last season. Bulloch kicks off that stretch by travelling to defending state champion Deefield-Windsor before returning home the next week to face Westfield – the No. 2 seed out of the region in 2010. The Gators get a slight breather with Southland Academy September 30, but Sherwood Academy closes out the home stand the following week, at which time Bulloch’s playoff picture will be coming into focus.
“It’s a tough region and a tough schedule,” said Hodges. “But we step onto the field each week looking to win. We’ve got good numbers on the roster and good talent. If we play well, I think we can compete with anybody.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.