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Locals power VSU football program
Blazers kick off season on TV

It takes a good 250-plus mile drive from Gwinnett down Interstate 75 to get to Valdosta, hailed this summer as ESPN's Titletown USA.

It's a trip many dread, unless the end destination is a beach in Florida.

But the distance hasn't deterred a large group of Gwinnett products from making a home away from home at Valdosta State. The Division II power, coming off a national championship last year, has attracted a number of locals in recent seasons.

That hasn't changed in 2008 as 13 current Blazers on the active roster (there are 16 total local players at VSU) will suit up for Saturday's televised opener against Fort Valley State. The matchup is the inaugural NCAA game of the season, making it the official kickoff of college football.

"It's definitely a neat opportunity for Valdosta State, with us being a smaller school that is starting to get more recognition," said Parkview grad Buster Faulkner, the Blazers' quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. "We want to become a national contender every year. It's great for our kids and they deserve it. They put in all the hours and time."

CBS College Sports Network (formerly CSTV) will broadcast the game, the Blazers' first as defending national champions.

"(The opener) helps us out a lot, especially with recruiting," said Valdosta State receivers coach Tyler Aurandt, a Greater Atlanta Christian grad. "Our players are more excited than anybody. Normally we get on TV twice a year, in the (national) semifinals and finals. So anytime you can get on TV down here, it's a big deal."

Faulkner, 26, and Aurandt, 24, know that firsthand. Both are former Blazer players who returned to the program as coaches.

They now find themselves coaching many players who hail from their old neighborhood. They personally recruited some of them, especially Faulkner, who recruits Gwinnett for the Blazers (Aurandt recruits Cobb County).

"I think we signed five from Gwinnett in this last class and we plan on getting back up there this year and finding some more," Faulkner said.

Six Gwinnett grads, five on offense, are scheduled to start Saturday. The group includes three wide receivers, junior R.J. Bastone of North Gwinnett, sophomore Jackson Dean of South Gwinnett and freshman Kody Case of Buford.

Case, a true freshman, has been one of the biggest surprises of preseason practices. Faulkner said Case's speed is much better than anyone anticipated, vaulting him from fifth string at the beginning of camp into a starting role.

The fourth starter at receiver in the pass-heavy attack also may be a Gwinnett true freshman, Berkmar grad Isaiah Jupiter. Jupiter is at a No. 2 spot, but the starter in front of him may be out with an injury.

Redshirt freshman Evan Gilles, a North Gwinnett grad, will start at fullback, while senior Davis Nall, a Buford grad, anchors the offensive line at tackle.

"(Nall) has started three years now," Aurandt said. "He's one of the ones everybody looks up to on offense because he's played in so many games. He has that experience."

South grad Chris Grant starts at cornerback for the Blazers, who also have Shiloh grads James Hamilton (defensive line) and Caleb St. Louis (defensive line), North grad Donald Maxwell (cornerback), Brookwood grad P.J. Katz (wide receiver), Central Gwinnett grad Devin Sabina (kicker) and Buford grad Cody Vining (linebacker) in reserve roles.

Two Gwinnett products, fullback Chris Doster of South and cornerback Chris Wellborn of Collins Hill, are expected to redshirt this season along with wideout Zach West, a freshman from Loganville.

But most of the young players will see action on the field as graduation took a large toll on the defending national champions.

"We're going to be very young and inexperienced," Faulkner said. "But we feel very good about the talent. It's just that we're young and inexperienced."

SideBar: College football

What: Valdosta State vs. Fort Valley State

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Valdosta

TV: CBS College Sports Network (formerly CSTV), channel 152 on Dish Network and channel 610 on DirecTV

Valdosta State features a large group of players and coaches with Gwinnett connections. Here's a breakdown of the contributors:

Coaches

Name

Position

High school

Buster Faulkner

Offensive coordinator/QBs

Parkview

Tyler Aurandt

Wide receivers coach

GAC

Starters

Pos

Name

Class

High school

WR

R.J. Bastone

Jr.

North Gwinnett

WR

Kody Case

Fr.

Buford

WR

Jackson Dean

Soph.

South Gwinnett

FB

Evan Gilles

Fr.

North Gwinnett

OT

Davis Nall

Sr.

Buford

CB

Chris Grant

Soph.

South Gwinnett

Reserves

Pos

Name

Class

High school

DL

James Hamilton

Jr.

Shiloh

WR

Isaiah Jupiter

Fr.

Berkmar

WR

P.J. Katz

Soph.

Brookwood

CB

Donald Maxwell

Fr.

North Gwinnett

PK

Devin Sabina

Fr.

Central Gwinnett

DL

Caleb St. Louis

Jr.

Shiloh

LB

Cody Vining

Fr.

Buford

Redshirts

Pos

Name

Class

High school

FB

Chris Doster

Fr.

South Gwinnett

CB

Chris Wellborn

Soph.

Collins Hill

WR

Zach West

Fr.

Loganville