First-year head coach John Zernhelt, who served as the Bulldogs' offensive coordinator last season, has tweaked the offense and defense a tad in order to fit the current personnel but there's not much to change the look.
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"Offensively and defensively, the game plan will be similar to last year even with the change in coordinators," he said. "On offense, we are still going to be a team that will have to establish the run and play-action passing in order to be successful. Our defense will remain a 4-3 base with a slightly different philosophy and some different techniques."
Offensively, Zernhelt and first-year coordinator Toby Strange will be tasked with replacing four starting linemen (Dan Blary, Lew Dawson, Kevin Olecki and Jared Perdue), starting quarterback (Willie Simmons) and the school's most productive wide receiver in more than 20 years (Scooter Johnson). That looks like a tall order, yet the offense returns two all-American candidates in tailback Nehemiah Broughton and tight end Ross Armstrong, along with returning starters WR Jermaine Anderson, FB Porter Johnson and C Dusty Benefield.
At quarterback, Zernhelt says that Justin Hardin had a great spring and enters the fall as the No. 1 guy. He didn't throw a single interception in the spring and will need that to translate into the fall. Hardin's strong decision-making ability and his will to move the offense have impressed the coaches during the off-season.
James Reiter, who has made great strides, will back up Hardin. A major concern is the lack of game experience as only Hardin has attempted to throw a pass.
"We didn't lose a single player at fullback or tailback from last year," Zernhelt adds. "Broughton is one of the top backs in I-AA football and will be relied on to carry a bulk of the load.
What is even better about having 'Nemo' is having Ern Mills, Chris Gibbs and Terrell Williams as his backups. Our fullback position is the same, very deep and very talented as Porter Johnson and Nuru Goodrum both give us strong blockers that can run and catch the ball from behind the line of scrimmage."
At wide receiver, Zernhelt indicates that they are the most improved offensive group.
"Their route running, yards after the catch and blocking skills have improved immensely during the off-season. They will have a slightly different role this season because of a small philosophy change on that side of the ball. We will look to use our wideouts to spread the field and force the opposition to defend the whole field. Our wideouts will likely be involved not only in pass catching but the running game as well."
The loss of Johnson and Bud Pough has cleared itself up thanks to a strong off-season as Jermaine Anderson looms as the playmaker. Rontreal Tyler saw action a year ago and enters the season as a starter with Anderson. Gary Domanski, Waleed Rushdan and Justin Woodberry also emerged and will see time in spread sets.
"The line will dictate our success on offense," says Zernhelt. "The line suffered the most substantial losses of any position on the team and we spent most of the spring trying to find the best group. There is much consistency back and a solid core of players that have game experience."
Gone are four seniors and two all-Southern Conference selections. RG Dusty Benefield, LG Adam Hastings and C Jay Thomas return with their share of game experience. Rounding the starting five is a set of twins, as Cliff and Caleb Conant will earn the nod at the tackle positions. Doug Chandler, Brian Fletcher, Brian Repass, Zach Dibois and Alex Hartsell wrap up the two-deep.
At tight end, the Bulldogs welcome back first-team all-SoCon member Ross Armstrong, who is a steady blocker and possibly has the best hands in the program. Ryan Causey provides a good 1-2 punch at that position.
The defense is under the guidance of first-year coordinator Dick Hopkins and the base defense will remain a 4-3 structure. Hopkins inherits a defense that returns eight starters and a total of 23 letter winners. The return of Team MVP Shawn Grant, an outside linebacker, and the leading tackler from '03 in middle linebacker James Greene highlights it.
The defense also returns every starter on the line as well as both corners. The major area of concern is at safety, as the Bulldogs must replace starters T.J. Rose and Anthony Roberts. On the defensive line, ends Michael Ballentine and James Wilson provide solid pressure from the position while tackles Shaun Palmer and Fred Townsend have the ability to shut down the middle.
Seven of the eight players listed on the two-deep have considerable amount of playing time in their careers and includes DT Lukas Gleissner, DE Deon Douglas and DT Joseph Freeman. Reserve DE Nick Fender, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, has received a medical redshirt.
"The linebacking corps is the most exciting group on our defense," Zernhelt claims. "They really fly to the ball and are six deep with quality players."
Greene, the team's leading tackler, and Grant, the second leading tackler, are the two big hitters that possess good strength and excellent speed. Outside linebacker Julian West returns his great size and speed to create a solid starting threesome. Backing up Greene will be Chris Murray while Raleigh Jackson serves as Grant's backup and Emmanuel Turner will offer West a breather.
"In the secondary, someone will have to step up and give us some quality play," the coach continued. "Marcus Cohen is a solid cover corner with great speed and will always take on the other team's top receiver. We hope Dru' Knight, Andrew Henderson or Justin Matherson can step in and give us another quality player on the outside. All three have good speed and hands yet still need to mature as football players. Brandon Hawkins and Avery Dingle will take over at safety."
With the departure of one of the school's best punters and kickers in Travis Zobel, kicker Blake Vandiver and punter Mike Adams will be counted on heavily to produce early in their young careers. Anderson and Cohen are likely candidates as return men, while Armstrong serves as the long snapper and Jay Thomas will short snap.
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