Coach David Dean believes Valdosta State's defense is stout enough to help the Blazers meet high expectations of winning in TitleTown USA.
Ask Dean about his team's offense, however, and the third-year coach isn't so sure.
Russ Callaway, the leading candidate to start at quarterback and pair with standout receiver Cedric Jones, tore a knee ligament in spring practice. Valdosta State also must replace four starters on the offensive line for the second straight year.
'When Russ went down, our depth chart took a hit at quarterback,' Dean said. 'He's way ahead of schedule in his rehab, which is encouraging. I think he'll be OK, but we have a couple of JUCO guys that are competing for the job, too.'
Ranked No. 12 in the final 2008 NCAA Division II poll, Valdosta State was disappointed with a 9-3 season that ended in a second-round playoff loss at North Alabama.
Dean knows that's not good enough in TitleTown USA, a moniker embraced locally after ESPN used an online vote last year to recognize the city of Valdosta ahead of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and 16 other finalists.
Valdosta High School had Georgia's leading prep football team for decades. In recent years, crosstown rival Lowndes High has been the dominant local school.
In Dean's first year as head coach, Valdosta State went 13-1 and won the national championship. Under his predecessor, Chris Hatcher, the Blazers won the 2004 national title, finished as runners-up in 2002, made the playoffs seven times in eight years and went 56-6 against Gulf South Conference opponents.
Dean joined Hatcher's first staff in 2000 and took charge of the program after his former boss left for Georgia Southern.
'You have to win, and in order to do that, you have to expect yourselves to win,' Dean said. 'There's no question about that, but we think we've got some good football players at Valdosta State, and it's our job as coaches to put them in a position where they can be successful.'
While Callaway continues his rehab and participating lightly in summer drills, the Blazers will have Jimmy Coy, a junior transfer from El Camino (Calif.) College, work with the first-team offense.
Coy passed for 2,755 yards and 14 touchdowns with three interceptions, putting up the kind of numbers that show he could be a better fit than Callaway, who spent his first two years listed third on Valdosta State's depth chart and has attempted just 12 career passes. El Camino went 10-2 last season to win the Southern California Central Conference title.
Dean seeks to get the ball in Jones' hands often. Just 23 catches shy of establishing a new career record at Valdosta State, Jones had 1,171 yards receiving during the '07 championship season.
Though Valdosta State is replacing six starters on offense and defense, Dean has less to worry about defensively. Third-year coordinator Joe Cauthen oversees a unit that hasn't allowed an opposing running back to gain more than 84 yards in the Blazers' last 18 games.
Led by the junior tandem of tackle Demario Jones and linebacker Larry Dean (no relation to the head coach), Valdosta State ranked 24th nationally in scoring defense, 31st in total average yards allowed, 31st against the run and 20th in defensive pass efficiency.
Larry Dean, the only non-senior last year to be voted a team captain, finished with 95 tackles (42 solo) and was named second-team All-Gulf South. Demario Jones made the first-team all-GSC list
'Coach Cauthen tells you to stay in your gap, beat your man and make a play,' Jones said. 'If we're all on the same page and don't try to overstep our assignments, he's shown us that the plays will come to us and we won't make too many mistakes.'
SideBar: VALDOSTA STATE PREVIEW
Coach: David Dean, third year, 22-4; career record, 22-4
2008 record: 9-3
Offense: WR Cedric Jones, one of the most prolific wideouts in school history, is looking for his next QB, and the leading candidate could be junior Jimmy Coy, who passed for 2,755 yards, 14 TDs and three INTs at El Camino (Calif.) College. Line must replace four starters. RB Ronnye Nelson had 382 yards rushing on 58 carries.
Defense: LB Larry Dean, the only non-senior voted as a team captain last year, joins T Demario Jones, named first-team All-Gulf South Conference as a sophomore, to give coordinator Joe Cauthen a pair of junior standouts to lead a unit that's among the nation's best against the run.
Opener: Aug. 29 vs. Newberry.
Outlook: Along with Delta State and North Alabama, Valdosta State has been dominant in Gulf South. Since Dean arrived on staff in 2000, the Blazers are 69-9 against the GSC, 13-3 in his first two years as head coach. He must replace six starters on offense and six on defense, but Valdosta State is talented enough to return to the NCAA Division II playoffs for the eighth time in the nine years.