For some teams, having a mediocre record and not making the playoffs is ordinary; Valdosta State isn’t one of those programs. The Blazers, who finished 6-4 and missed the postseason last season, have different plans this time around. VSU takes its first step toward moving on when they host Albany State on Sept.6. The Blazers went from preseason No.1 in the country in 2013 to being predicted to finish third in the Gulf South Conference this year. The mix of inexperienced players and loss of standouts has dropped outside expectations considerably. Nevertheless, being out of the spotlight will be an advantage if the Blazers so choose. Here are five key questions surrounding VSU football in 2014.
1. Can the offensive line build on last season?
Head Coach David Dean is preparing for his eighth season at the helm.The departure of the championship offensive line made the new o-linemen the topic of discussion last season,however,the new group performed better than most expected. Jack Bradley, Austin Thompson, and others proved many wrong as they stepped up to the challenge when called upon last season. Led by seniors Felei Tauave and Jesse Yancey, the o-line has more depth this season which allows for a smoother rotation, subbing guys in and out. Game-time experience is invaluable and has been monumental in the improvement up front. Last season, these five guys quickly got acclimated as starters in the Gulf South Conference.How good can they be now?
2.Can Cedric O’Neal perform any better?
Cedric O’Neal has been one of the best running backs in Division II. The junior running back has had two excellent seasons and his team could use another – more than ever. Head Coach David Dean hasn’t been shy about voicing his certainty that O’Neal will have ample opportunities to make big plays. An effective running game has been the Blazers’ saving grace and they cannot afford to let it slip. The dynamic tandem of O’Neal and running back Austin Scott should lead the Blazers to victories once again. If O’Neal, the preseason All-GSC selection,can duplicate his usual production, it’s going to make a huge difference in the offense’s fluidity.
3.Who is going to catch?
There is no timetable set when Jake Medlock or Kaleb Nobles will be named starting quarterback, but the true question mark lies in the Blazers’ young receiving core. The bad news: only two of the 27 wide receivers are seniors. Neither seniors, RJ Davis or Connor Wetherington, have played regularly in an entire season at that. Willie Downs, Seantavious Jones, and Regginald Lewis are big-time playmakers whose missing presence will be felt. The good news: the Blazers have acquired an outstanding player in junior-transfer wide receiver Shane Henderson. Henderson arrives to Valdosta after breaking records at Allan Hancock College (Calif.). Coach Dean says Henderson is first player he has ever coached that has immediately become a leader–revered by teammates–despite not playing a snap yet for VSU. The spread offense thrives off deepness and consistent play from the wide-out position. It could be a really frustrating year for the new quarterback…
4. How do you replace Chris Pope and Jeremy Grable?
The loss of VSU’s all-time leading tackler Chris Pope and Jeremy Grable weakens the core of the Black Swarm. It’s vital that this season’s starting linebackers like Justin Williams and Rodney Hunter rise to the occasion. Williams has potential to a have huge senior year after starting 10 games in 2013, finishing third in tackles behind Pope and Grable.Williams and linebacker Kenny Murphy are a part of a small group of returnees on defense this season and must lead by example. VSU has an upside at this position with young, improving linebackers who have already begun making a name for themselves.
5.Will Isaiah Gresham get help?
Senior safety Isaiah Gresham is the anchor of the Blazers’ inexperienced secondary. Gresham is no longer surrounded by departed seniors in Manny Evans, Lance Holder, Chris Caspari and Ashton Ballard. He is the lone returnee that coach Dean says VSU is counting him to fill in that leadership role. The Blazers bring several new faces from freshman to transfers to their secondary. Defensive backs are fighting for playing time more than ever in camp now. There is still no telling who will be a stand out containing deep field alongside Gresham.Questions are about to be answered on how VSU’s secondary will fare against noted offenses in the Gulf South Conference.