It’s been a while in Georgia since a head football coach of the stature of Jeff Herron left a program after a long tenure and while still on top of his game.
New Camden County coach Welton Coffey is calling how he and many others see it.
‘’I’m following a legend,’’ Coffey said of Herron, who is leaving Kingsland after winning three state titles and compiling a 154-18 record over 18 seasons. “There’s a legacy that’s been put forth. I’m not here to fill anyone’s shoes. I’m just here to help this program continue the success and hopefully we can catapult it to the next level.’’
About the only level that Camden hasn’t attained this century is an exemption from third-round exits from the playoffs. Camden has lost in the quarterfinals the past two seasons. Pretty good for most programs, a source of mild anxiety in Camden.
But it’s hard to complain. Long criticized for playing in the weakest region in Georgia’s highest class, Camden County moved to famous Region 1 last season and won it, a final hurrah for Herron, who is retiring from the public schools and will be head coach of Prince Avenue Christian in Athens.
Coffey, the offensive coordinator, was promoted last month and will get a look as his new team on the field for the first time Wednesday, when the Wildcats begin spring practice.
A native of nearby Jacksonville, Coffey has coached at Camden since 2006 and was part of state championship teams in 2008 and 2009. Coffey had been head coach of his alma mater, Raines of Jacksonville, and led that school to a Class 4A championship in Florida in his first season there, 1997. Coffey came to Georgia in 2003 to be the offensive coordinator at Valdosta under Rick Darlington.
Coffey almost didn’t get the Camden job simply because he didn’t initially apply for it.
‘’I’m very much based in my faith,’’ Coffey said. “The first time the job presented itself, I was waiting on confirmation [through prayer] that this was something that I needed to do. I’m very active outside of football in mentorship programs and with my church. I thought maybe my duties were being guided in a different direction. After some weeks, there was some dialogue I had with people [close to the football program], and they asked about me applying for the job. After some soul searching, I had a talk with my wife and decided to put my hat in.’’
Coffey wanted to make clear that he did not take the job with any reluctance.
‘’Fire is not ever a question with me,’’ Coffey said. “That’s not the deal. I want to do right by this community ad these kids and want to be obedient to the role of what Jesus Christ wants me to do. We forget that it’s high school football and these are children playing it. We have to understand why we’re doing this, what is our purpose. Football is a vehicle to teach character. We’ve modeling good behavior. That’s no different than what Coach Herron has done before.’’
His first order of business has been rebuilding the staff. Jason Tone, the running backs coach, took the head coaching job at Worth County. Adam Carter, a co-defensive coordinator, was announced as Bradwell Institute’s coach last week. Chris Reese, an offensive line coach, is joining Carter at Bradwell.
Offensive line coach Zach Slattery and defensive backs coach Major Herron (Jeff’s son) are going with Herron to Prince Avenue Christian.
Coffey has given his old job of offensive coordinator to Greg Slattery, a long-time Camden assistant who left for a time to be head coach at South Forsyth. Byron Slack, who will be in his eighth season at Camden, will be the defensive coordinator.
Four other positions need to be filled. Coffey wouldn’t comment on those, as none has been approved officially by the school board.
As for the team he’s inheriting, when has Camden not been good? Never in the Herron era. So expect a pretty good product that takes the same state-title-or-bust approach.
Five starters return on both sides of the ball. The biggest names that have moved on are quarterback Brice Ramsey and halfback/cornerback J.J. Green, both enrolled at Georgia.
The new quarterback is to be decided. Ramsey (75-of-137 passing, 1,396 yards, 19 touchdowns) was the only Camden player to throw a pass in 2012. Dalton Sikes, the backup last season, returns and perhaps leads a group of three or four battling for that spot.
Since Camden passes only about 10-12 times per game, Coffey sounded more concerned about replacing Ramsey’s special teams skills. He was the region’s top kicker and punter.
Green was a weapon on offense, but there’s no shortage of Green-type players (halfback/cornerback types) still on Camden’s campus. Kalvaraz Bessent and Chris Williams, both committed to Alabama, and Antonio Wimbush are the same kind of two-way players that can be outstanding as ball carriers and defenders.
Bessent rushed for 481 yards, scored nine touchdowns and intercepted six passes. Williams rushed for 443 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Wimush, a rising junior, rushed for 488 yard and scored 11 touchdowns, three against Hillgove in the state playoffs.
The offensive line returns only two starters, so that will be a spring project.
On defense, the secondary is loaded, and the defensive line is experienced. Rising senior A.J. Johnson led the team in sacks with six. The major issue is at linebacker. The top four at that position graduated, including all-state player Jarrad Davis to Florida.
Coffey says that replacing several key starters is business as usual at Camden. Replacing several key coaches is something new.
‘’Outside of replacing coaches, the transition has been fairly smooth,’’ Coffey said. “The kids have responded well to this. The assistant coaches have done an outstanding job since Coach Herron announced he was going to leave. They kept going in the weight room, and the kids haven’t missed a beat. That’s testament to Coach Herron’s legacy.’’
Camden County Wildcats
2012 record: 11-2, lost to Norcross 34-20 in the Class AAAAAA quarterfinals.
Starters returning: 5 offense, 5 defense
Key players lost: HB/CB J.J. Green (Georgia), QB Brice Ramsey (Georgia), LB Jarrad Davis (Florida), OL J.P. Vonashek (South Carolina), LB Rafael Hardee (Georgia Southern), OL Tyler Davis , DL Conner Lockhart, FS Grant Gabriel (West Georgia), WR Christian Middelton, LB Kashaun Hutchinson.
Key players returning: HB/CB Kalvaraz Bessent (committed to Alabama), DB/HB Chris Williams (committed to Alabama); OLB/RB Antonio Wimbush, OL Trayvon Williams, DL A.J. Johnson, DL Chris Bahr
Spring practice dates: May 1-17
Aug. 16 – Milton (scrimmage)
Aug. 24 – vs. North Gwinnett (Georgia Dome)
Aug. 30 – Baker County, Fla.
Sept. 6 – Johnson-Savannah
Sept. 13 – Beach
Sept. 27 – Valdosta
Oct. 4 – at Coffee
Oct. 11 – at Tift County
Oct. 25 – at Brunswick
Nov. 1 – Lowndes
Nov. 8 – Colquitt County
Outlook: New coach Welton Coffey sounds confident that the transition to a new head coach will go well. One advantage in defending the Region 1-AAAAAA title is the schedule. Camden plays top rivals Valdosta, Lowndes and Colquitt County at home this season. Camden is hoping to get past the third round for the first time since the 2009 state title. ‘’The goals will continue to be the same as they’ve always been,’’ Coffey said. “We’re not afraid to talk about winning state championships here.’’