Written By: Chris Webb
September in Valdosta means one thing: football.
After going 6-4, losing three of their last four games and missing the Division II football playoffs, Valdosta State is ready for a new season.
“We aren’t really thinking back on last year,” Head Coach David Dean said about his team’s attitude entering the season. “We look at this as a new year and with only 11 returning starters, there is not very many of them that even remember all that.”
The Blazers hope to get things started on the right foot this season when they welcome Albany State into Bazemore-Hyder Stadium for Saturday’s season opener at 7 p.m.
Cedric O’Neal, pre-season All-American junior running back, will lead on offense this year.
“The Awards are nice, but this is a team sport and without a good team behind you, those awards will never happen,” O’Neal said.
Joining O’Neal for a third straight year in the backfield is junior running back Austin Scott.
“(They) have both looked really good in camp for us all summer,” Dean said. “Austin has been a little banged up, battling a pulled muscle in his leg, but I think he’ll be ready by Saturday.”
Another impressive running back in camp is sophomore Nick Davis.
“Nick has had a great camp as well,” said Dean. “We are just very fortunate to have a trio of outstanding running backs to hand the ball off to this year.”
The offense looks to replace last year’s starting quarterback Cayden Cochran, and three leading receivers, Seantavius Jones, Regginald Lewis and Willie Downs.
Jones, who led the team last year with 55 catches, 13 touchdowns and 777 yards, is currently a member on the New Orleans Saints practice squad.
Chris Anderson is the lone returning starter at wide out. Joining him will be Roshmel Young, D’Amonte Ridley and Xay Howard.
Junior transfer Shane Henderson joins the Blazers from Allan Hancock Junior College where he had 1,069 yards on 77 catches and seven touchdowns last season.
Heading into Saturday’s season opener, Coach Dean will be using a dual quarterback system.
Returning is last year’s backup, sophomore Kaleb Nobles, who finished the year with 967 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Jake Medlock, senior transfer from Florida International University, will also be competing for the starting job.
Medlock was FIU’s starting quarterback the past two seasons and threw for 3,049 yards with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions during that time.
“They are two totally different quarterbacks,” Dean said. “They each bring different things to the table that we like, but they are both great leaders that can make plays for us.”
Defensively, VSU will be looking to replace four of its top five tacklers from last year, including linebacker Chris Pope who finished his career with 372 tackles, a VSU and Gulf South Conference record.
VSU is glad to have senior defensive end, Tevin Davis, back 100 percent after missing the last four games of the 2013 season with a broken toe.
Davis will look to lead the defense under new Defensive Coordinator Bubba Walker.
Walker has earned his promotion after serving as VSU’s linebacker coach since 2011.
VSU’s defense must be ready for Albany State’s offense led by All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference quarterback Frank Rivers, who threw for 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns last season leading his team to a 6-4 record.
This will be an early test for a young Blazers secondary that sees the return of only one of last year’s four starters, senior safety Isaiah Gresham.
Sophomore Kenny Murphy and junior Cameron Olds will most likely join Gresham in the secondary, and get big increases in playing time from last year.
VSU has also brought in safety Duran Lowe, a senior transfer from Wake Forest, to strengthen and add depth to their secondary.