Written by Gabe Burns, Editor-in-Chief
The highly anticipated Kerwin Bell era kicks off at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium Saturday.
VSU hosts Albany State in its season opener. It’s the third straight year the Blazers open against the Golden Rams, with the previous two resulting in victories. But the fanfare is stronger than usual with Bell at the helm.
“We’re going to call it Blazer ball,” Bell said on his weekly radio show Monday evening. “… We’re going to try to have a lot of fun, score a lot of points, be exciting and be a well-coached football team. It all starts with our preparation and I think our kids have done a tremendous job. We’re ready to get going.”
The focus is on Bell’s vertical offense. Fortunately for the former quarterback, he has a signal caller who fits the bill schematically in Roland Rivers. Rivers, who played sparingly in 10 games behind starter E.J. Hilliard a season ago, flashed a cannon arm and above average athleticism, meaning Bell’s offense caters to his strengths.
The Blazers replace all-time leading rusher Cedric O’Neal with Javon Robinson, who was expected to start at Auburn before being dismissed from the team. Some NFL scouts said they consider Robinson a draftable talent, which is an enormous add for a VSU team which had questions about its run game.
Bell has been preparing his offense since January. Within a few days of accepting the job, he took personal time to watch the quarterbacks and receivers informally practice and offer tips, according to players.
Off the field, the coach made a quick impression on his players. Receiver Dallas Baldner praised Bell shortly after meeting him.
“You don’t have to dig deep to find out who he really is,” Baldner said. “You just know he is who he says he is and that’s that. He’s made it very clear that he’s a man of his word and he’s going to make sure that Valdosta State Football is everything and more. I believe in him and I believe in what’s to come.”
VSU’s defense is coached by James Rowe, who was most recently the secondary coach at the University of Florida. Under Rowe, Florida had two 2016 first round picks (Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal) and three 2016 All-Americans (Marcus Maye, Jalen Tabor and Hargreaves III). Bell said he is thrilled to have Rowe on board, referring to him as a budding “star” in the coaching world. The defense impressed in the Aug. 27 scrimmage, and the “Black Swarm” is projected to be formidable again.
Meanwhile, the Rams have been mired in the middle. ASU collected a 33-19 record over the last five years, but has missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons. The Rams won the East side of the SIAC for the second straight year, but dropped both conference championships. The team brings back 12 starters from the 2015 squad (6-4).
ASU finished with the SCIA’s first ranked offense. Running back Jarvis Small, two-time conference player of the year, returns for his final stint as a Ram. Quarterback Caleb Edmonds, who previously led the conference in total yards with 2,027, will be under center. The offensive line kept three of five starters. ASU will again rely on explosive plays to get over the postseason hump.
The Rams’ offense hasn’t looked so dynamic against the Blazers, however. It lost to VSU 38-10 in 2014, and 21-13 in last year’s opener. Small was held to 86 yards on 19 attempts in 2015 (his third-worst outing of the year). ASU’s defense, led by D2Football.com All-American Grover Stewart, will have to force turnovers if the Rams are going to pull an upset.
Bell said he believes fans play a substantial role. He’s called for community involvement since his opening press conference. He wants Blazer fans to be loud and in droves.
“This is a tremendous program, but we’re just trying to do some other things to make it even better,” Bell said. “It all starts with our community. We want to make sure that we get really good support. People ask me all the time about Valdosta State, what’s the difference and what makes it so special; it’s the people. People here love football, they love Valdosta State University, the Blazers. There’s been a lot of great tradition here, so I’m hoping we keep building on that.”
The first opportunity to start building arrives Saturday at 7 p.m.