LAWRENCEVILLE - Like every other high school football program throughout Georgia, the Central Gwinnett Black Knights took to the field for the first time in preparation for the 2008 season Monday.
While every year presents new challenges to any team, Central's first practice had a decidedly different atmosphere surrounding it.
A year ago at this time, the Black Knights were dealing with the change of a new coach in Dennis Roland.
Fast forward 12 months, and the change they are
dealing with as preseason conditioning begins to take on even bigger proportions after Roland died following a lengthy battle with cancer in January.
"It took me some time to realize he wasn't going to be in his office every day," Central senior offensive lineman Kaycee Ike said. "It took a while (to get over Roland's death)."
However, the promotion of offensive coordinator Ed Stokes to head coach has helped the Black Knights cope with the loss of Roland and bring a sense of continuity as they try to move forward.
While Stokes says it is an ongoing process, he is pleased with the way his players are focused following a tough spring and summer.
"Some players were affected (by Roland's death) more than they showed outwardly," said Stokes, who also served as Roland's offensive coordinator during his season at North Gwinnett in 2004. "For some of them, it was the first time they've ever dealt with death. (Roland) was only part of their lives from basically April to December. That's not a long time, but he did such a good job of teaching the kids and taking an interest in them. That's why he had such an impact on them in a short time.
"What's really helped (the healing process) is that we have seven (assistant coaches) who were on staff here last year (returning). Really, we didn't change much (on or off the field). And give the kids a lot of credit. They're more resilient than maybe we give them credit for."
True, the Central players are doing their best to look forward rather than look back, but it's not easy. Many players admit Roland is always in the back of their minds.
"It's hard to just forget about him because he was such a good role model," junior quarterback Stephen Bott said. "Still, we've got to move on. Coach Stokes was such a big part of the team last year. So, there really wasn't that much of a change."
Indeed, Stokes has kept much of the same systems Roland installed last year, so the players should be fairly familiar with the offensive and defensive sets, especially with so many key personnel returning.
That should be especially true on offense where the Black Knights return last year's leading rusher. Diante Drake was second in the county last season with 1,501 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Black Knights also return leading passer Bott (638 yards, 3 TDs) and leading receiver Malcolm Moulton (40 receptions, 545 yards, 5 TDs).
"I don't want to say we're a step ahead," said Moulton, whose 40 receptions tied him for fifth-best in Gwinnett last season. "We're more familiar with the system this year, but you've always got to stay on your toes. There's always someone competing with you."
Still, Stokes believes it won't be until at least next week when the Black Knights put on the pads for the first time before he really begins to see just how far both the offense and defense have progressed.
"The first few days in helmets won't be different from what we've been doing with them all summer," Stokes said. "They've all been really good all summer. Attendance (at offseason workouts) has been good. But this week will be a lot of special teams work and seven-on-seven drills. It's not a lot we don't already know."