By Jay Stone
For the AJC
Those expecting a wholesale makeover of the Camden County Wildcats are likely to be disappointed.
The Wildcats, who begin the season Saturday in the Kell Classis against North Gwinnett ranked No. 5 in Class AAAAAA, will feature the same Wing-T. Same swarming defense. Same blue unis.
Still, it would be unreasonable to think that a change in head coaches would come without tweaks.
Jeff Herron stepped down after the 2012 season, leaving to become the head coach at Prince Avenue Christian in Athens, and Camden promoted offensive coordinator Welton Coffey to take over the program.
The Wildcat players say that while the playbook language and many of the routines are the same, the atmosphere is different.
Coffey, they say, is the more boisterous of the two.
“We all knew him. He was our offensive coordinator. He’s always been a vocal leader for all of us really, and a man of God,” said senior quarterback Dalton Sikes. “When he got the job, I think we were all pretty excited. We were blessed really to have someone inside our own program to step up and take that position rather than have someone come in from the outside and change everything we’ve done in the program.”
There are a number of new faces. Sikes takes over for graduated Brice Ramsey, who passed for nearly 1,400 yards and 19 touchdowns with three interceptions in 2012. Ramsey, who also handled the kicking and punting duties, and signed with Georgia.
While Coffey has the task of replacing Ramsey and key offensive weapon J.J. Green, he has 10 starters returning. Among those are defensive backs Kalvarez Bessent and Chris Williams, both committed to Alabama, defensive end Anthony Johnson (Florida International), defensive lineman Chris Bahr and linebacker Antonio Wimbush, all of them key players in a defense that allowed 10 points per game and held Region 1-AAAAAA opponents to 7.5 points per game.
There are new assistant coaches, including linebackers coach Derek Chastain, who was on the staff at Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy last year.
“When coach Herron made the decision to step down, things went on as business as usual,” Coffey said. “I was happy to see how the assistant coaches and players handled the situation. Games are won and lost in the offseason. There was a lot of continuity during that transition time. We had a great spring. We got some things done offensively as well as defensively. Everything fit nicely. That’s all part of the process. I just appreciate the administration not only from our school but also from our board to open up some doors to get some things done.”
Coffey was a head coach in Florida before coming to Georgia. He won a state championship at Jacksonville’s Raines High School in 1997. He has worked as an assistant at Valdosta, and as an assistant on the Camden staff, helped the team to state titles in 2008 and 2009. He also coached Ramsey.
His promotion was met with praise from Herron, who had pushed the Wildcats from perennial playoff team to perennial state-title contender.
“That program has always been so much bigger than one person,” Herron said. “There are a ton of good people left there. I do have an emotional attachment. You can’t be in a place as long as I was there and not want to make sure it’s taken care of. I think Coach Coffey was a great choice.”
Coffey is a man driven by detail, and he’s quick to point out that penalties in last year’s quarterfinal against Norcross gave the visiting Blue Devils life. Norcross won 34-20 and went on to win the state championship.
“Our team motto will be ‘just finish’,” Coffey said. “The last couple of years in the third round we’ve been put out. We ride ourselves on executing, being disciplined. There were a couple of moments in those games where we showed a lack of discipline.”
With that in mind, Coffey has paid fanatical attention to detail. It’s not reinventing the wheel – successful programs everywhere use peer pressure to foster improved execution – but Coffey’s intensity is not lost on the kids.
“Accountability is a big word in our program,” said Bahr. “Coach Coffey is all about doing the little things right. He focuses on the little things. He works hard everyday and pushes the coaches. He just gets into it. He gets more emotional than any coach I’ve ever seen.”