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Jess Simpson may take some time rationalizing his choice, but the results are his best defenders.
In a year where the always powerful Wolves moved up a classification, the Buford head coach chose to run a straight two-quarterback system with Taylor Mitchell and Montgomery Van Gorder switching in and out every series. Neither graduated from the now-defending state Class AAA champions, so nothing looks to change.
“Looks like it did last year,” Simpson said of his quarterback situation. “As a high school coach I can’t say enough about those two guys. Normally one of them would have quit or transferred or been upset or been disgruntled.”
And neither were much different. Mitchell completed 61 of his 102 pass attempts for 863 yards, seven touchdowns and an interception. Van Gorder was 53 of 77 for 784 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“We let those kids compete all the time,” Simpson said. “They are very even.
“I always tell people I have the best back up quarterback in the state of Georgia, I just don’t know which one it is.”
But also inherent in the two QBs similar stats are just how little Buford threw the ball in 15 games. The total yards of both quarterbacks wouldn’t even crack the top 10 in passing yards for Gwinnett County quarterbacks, a tribute to that balance and consistency of the Buford attack.
And consistency starts up front and last year’s offensive line was young.
Buford returns three from last year in Nick Lulkowski, Nick Polino and Hunter Holland with Harrison Morgan rising to the starting group after a strong summer.
“He’s taken this offseason like he’s a starter,” Simpson said. “(He is) one of the most improved players in the last four years in our program. We are going to rely heavy on him. He’s going to be a go-to guy that when we need a yard he’s a guy we can run behind.”
And there’s plenty of guys to do that with.
The trio of Zavior Hoxie, Thomas Wilson (pictured) and J.T. Thomas will split the duties. Simpson praised all three as future college backs.
“Zavior looks like one of those guys that plays for Oregon,” Simpson said. “He’s so fast you can’t see him.”
Hoxie and Wilson are both seniors, but the true gem of the running backs is Thomas, a rising junior with offers already flowing in.
“He has a level of competitiveness about him that kind of separates himself when the lights come on,” Simpson said of Thomas who rushed for 439 yards on 82 carries with seven touchdowns a season ago.
“We are blessed with backs.”
With big playmakers all over the place on both sides of the ball, the one standout among the others is on the Buford defense in linebacker Korie Rogers.
A standout a season ago as a junior, Rogers returns to lead the a Buford defense which dominated unlike even the best of the Buford defenses of seasons past.
Last year, the Wolves’ defense, like the offense replaced 10 starters. In 15 games, the Wolves didn’t allow a touchdown in nine.
“To see the resolve that that team had to say, ‘Well, what’s next, what do we need to do, how do we need to handle this?’ (is impressive),” Simpson said, noting his defense and its ability to limit opponents especially late in games.
Riding the wave
Whether it was offense or defense, the Wolves are coming off a season of success, in some ways, unparalleled to those of team’s past.
They put a young and almost completely inexperienced team on the field against unfamiliar teams in different environments and, after forfeiting games, entered the playoffs as a No. 2 seed. It wasn’t a Buford team stocked with top college talent at every position. But something worked.
“The summary of last year for us was not nearly as talented a team as we’ve had in the past, but just had incredible leadership and intangibles from our seniors,” Simpson said, but quickly refocused. “One thing we talk a lot about is yesterday ended last night. Last year’s team can’t make a first down for this year’s team, they can’t score a point. But what we can do is capture the momentum we created in the culture of our program, which is so unique. A real strong sense of oneness and family. That is one thing we can capitalize on.”