Valdosta enters its final week of spring practice Monday still searching for a new quarterback and rebuilding an offensive line that lost all five starters.
It’s looking like a three-player race to replace Shelby Wilkes, who passed for more than 1,700 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. No other player had meaningful snaps behind center in 2012, when Valdosta finished 7-4.
Mac Loudermilk, a rising senior who started at H-Back and tight end last year, is trying to win the job ahead of rising juniors Cole Massingill and Craig Berry. The three have different skill sets, says Valdosta coach Rance Gillespie.
‘’Mac is a bigger kid [6-foot-1, 228 pounds] and a really good athlete and does a good job with all the stuff we do in our run game with the added dimension of being a good runner,,’’ Gillespie said. “With Cole, you think that’s what a D-1 quarterback should look like. He’s 6-3, 190 pounds. He looks the part, and he’s a more prototypical drop-back passer with really good feet, but he’s not the runner of the three. Then [Craig] Berry is a mix between the two and maybe the best athlete.’’
The quarterback will have weapons around him. Running backs Nelson Herring and Malcolm Joseph will be three-year starters. Each rushed for more than 800 yards last season and are college prospects. So is Alex Cason, a receiver, has offers from mid-major programs.
‘’Obviously the two running backs are really good players, and that will be a strength offensively,’’ Gillespie said. “Alex is a big-play threat for us at receiver, and we feel we’ll have a quarterback who’ll develop in that position who can get the ball out to him.’’
The offense line is losing four players who got at least honorable-mention recognition on the all-region team last season. But Gillespie doesn’t sound anxious despite a senior class of only 28, about 10 below normal.
‘’It’s a concern any time you’ve only got three returning [starters on offense], but if this program is functioning the way it should, that is going to be something that becomes typical,’’ Gillespie said. “It’s not a fun to go through in the spring, but if you have good numbers and participation, you hope that you’ve got a lot of [rising] seniors who are ready to play.’’
The defense should be a good unit. The top player is probably rising senior Darrius Sapp, a second-team all-region player on the defensive line last season.
Three of four in the secondary return, including cornerback Demarcus Rhym. Rising senior Anthony Smith was the team’s top linebacker last season and will be in the middle again.
‘’I think we’ll be better on that side because of the experience that some of those guys got last year,’’ Gillespie said. “But even with seven back, that’s probably on three seniors. We’re talking about some upcoming juniors who started as 10th graders.’’
Special teams is not a worry. Loudermilk was an all-region punter and is being recruited by SEC schools as a specialist. He had two punts of more than 65 yards against Lowndes. The top place-kicker, rising junior Brennon Goodson, also returns.
Valdosta Wildcats at a glance
2012 record: 7-4, lost in first round to North Cobb 42-14.
Starters returning: 3 offense, 7 defense.
Key players lost: QB Shelby Wilkes, DE Chuntony Johnson, WR Sherrod Inman, OL Jamal Hunter, OL Ronnie Stoney, OL Quincy Jones, DE Eli Thomas
Key players returning: RB Nelson Herring, RB Malcolm Joseph, WR Alex Cason, P/QB Mac Loudermilk, DL Darrius Sapp, MLB Anthony Smith, CB Demarcus Rhym
Spring practice dates: May 6-18
30-Aug – Thomas County Central
6-Sep – Brooks County
13-Sep – Crisp County
20-Sep – Newton
27-Sep – at Camden County
11-Oct – at Lowndes
18-Oct – Tift County
25-Oct – at Colquitt County
1-Nov – Brunswick
8-Nov – Coffee
Outlook: Valdosta has lost in the first round each of the past two seasons, and the 42-14 loss to North Cobb last year was sobering. Reversing the trend will be a challenge for a couple of reasons. One is that Region 1-AAAAAA makes it tough to play at home in the first round (only the top two teams get that honor), and Valdosta must travel this season to its three biggest Region 1 rivals – Camden County, Lowndes and Colquitt County. The next biggest challenge is that all five 2012 starters on the offensive line are gone. Valdosta probably will be picked to finish fourth in the region. But this is a well-coached program with plenty of players waiting their turn, so the goal won’t be just making the playoffs. The opener against Thomas County Central – the first TCC-Valdosta meeting in over 25 years – will be a great early test.