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072814 SHS FOOTBALL 04 WEB
Statesboro High running back Jarvis Kirkland-Williams secures the ball during position drills during the first football practice of the 2014 season Monday. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    Putting answers next to preseason question marks and replacing departed seniors is an annual exercise for high school football teams everywhere.
    That said, the Statesboro Blue Devils are getting full squad practices underway with a few more pressing issues than they’ve been used to in recent years.
    The Devils turned in another stellar regular season in 2013 and advanced to the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs, but replacing a two-year starting quarterback, three defenders that are now on college rosters, and over 90 percent of last year’s rushing yards is going to make the early parts of this season a challenge.
    “We certainly have a lot of young guys to look at,” SHS coach Steve Pennington said. “At the same time, we haven’t been rushing them along too much. We’re doing some evaluating, of course, but one of the biggest things we wanted to do over the summer was to get everyone comfortable with schemes and concepts.”
    Along with the coaches’ efforts, returning team members have played a big part in embracing and teaching incoming freshmen — as well as rising sophomores and juniors who will be asked to play a bigger role.
    Statesboro has kept older and younger players separated during the last few years of spring practice, but once the school year concluded in May and weight training sessions kicked in, every football activity has been an all-inclusive effort.
    “It’s good to see our juniors and seniors really taking guys under their wing and welcoming everyone into a team environment,” Pennington said. “That’s the kind of attitude we preach. After all, a lot of the reason for the success of this year’s older guys is that they had someone showing them the ropes when they were younger.”
    The Devils have kept things rather low-key so far. Even though many starting positions have vacancies, the coaching staff is focused on having players that are confident with the basics before plowing ahead with the full playbook.
    That slow-and-steady has worked for Statesboro time and time again, but the process must be sped up this season.
    The Devils will be participating in the third annual Erk Russell Classic. Statesboro will likely have a huge home crowd on hand as they take on former region rival Burke County at Paulson Stadium, but the Aug. 23 kickoff comes a week before most schools in the state begin their regular seasons.
    With fewer than 20 possible days of full-pads practices available before the opening game rolls around, Pennington is anxious to get his team into a rhythm.
    “I know some people complain about school starting so early, but I wouldn’t mind if it started even earlier,” Pennington said. “Right now, we’ve got players sleeping in late and coaches working early mornings and late nights. Once school is in session, we get into that routine. Being set in that routine, I think, helps us to focus and prepare better.”
    In addition to the early start to the season, the Blue Devils will also be treading into uncharted waters in terms of their schedule.
    Last winter, the GHSA realigned its regions with Statesboro’s growing enrollment placing it in Class AAAAA — the second highest classification in Georgia — for the first time in school history. The Devils won’t be alone in their journey up the ranks as their new home in Region 3-AAAAA is dotted with plenty of former rivals from around the coastal region.

    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.