After a year in which Statesboro settled for a fourth-place region finish and took an uncharacteristic bow in the first round of the Georgia High School Association state playoffs, this season is all about improving and climbing back towards the top.
New faces — both on the Blue Devils’ roster and the schedule — have any definite predictions still up in the air, but with just a week until the regular season kicks off, Statesboro is starting to see things come together.
The Devils hosted Groves in a scrimmage last week, pulling out a 21-7 victory on a rainy night at Womack Field. The scoreboard was the far from the biggest concern of Blue Devil coach Steve Pennington though, and the past week has seen the team set their sights on all of the things that need to be improved before opening night.
“Immediately after the scrimmage, I was a little disappointed,” said Pennington. “However, we went back and looked at the film and saw a lot of things to be encouraged about. There are things that we need to work on, but we want to focus on the positives.”
One issue that Statesboro is looking to shore up is the running back situation. Always dependent on hard runners in their wishbone offense, the Blue Devils must find a replacement for departed senior Lamar Stimage.
A powerful and speedy trio of Trai Gadson, Dequan Daniels and Aaron Lester should handle the bulk of the workload and freshman Diquan Brunson — who led all rushers with eight carries for 88 yards and a touchdown in the scrimmage — could provide another boost for the ground game.
“Going into the season, the running back position was one of our concerns,” said Pennington. “It’s a position that is a big part of what we do, but we may perhaps lack the depth there that we’ve had in recent years. I liked what we saw out of them in the scrimmage, so I’m confident in their ability to contribute.”
Defensively, the Devils must become more consistent to capitalize on talent that has the ability to dominate.
Statesboro shut out four opponents and held two others to just six points — all of them wins — but allowed an average of 27 points per game in its five losses.
“We want to get stronger in the middle,” said Pennington. “We have some outside linebackers that we have a lot of faith in, and our secondary has been revamped, but we feel good about it. There are some new guys on the defensive line and at middle linebacker that we need to step up and perform to get better defensively.”
Spread offenses caused the biggest problem for Statesboro in 2009. Utilizing running quarterbacks and four wide receiver sets, teams like Burke County and Glynn Academy were able to find space against a Blue Devil offense that seemed a step slow at times.
Misdirection and multiple running threats also worked for Groves last week, but Pennington is confident that the proper adjustments can be made.
“What we want to do is instill confidence in our defense,” said Pennington. “When players are unsure of themselves, they don’t play at the same level and at the same speed. We want everyone going at full speed. If you make mistakes while giving the maximum effort, those mistakes are much easier to address and fix.”
One final challenge for this year’s Statesboro squad is the schedule.
Liberty County, Lakeside, Evans and Greenbriar join last season’s teams to expand the new Region 2-AAAA, and all but Liberty are grouped with Statesboro in the north sub-region, meaning a yearly matchup with those teams. The Devils are 15-2 against their new region rivals over the last decade, but remain focused that a long and challenging road lies ahead in order to make a return to the later rounds of the playoffs.
“There are a lot of quality teams in this region, and that includes our new members from Liberty and the Augusta area,” said Pennington. “Our biggest focus is to prepare ourselves each and every week. Every time we step out on that field, we expect to compete and win, and this year will be no exception.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.