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While two of most dynamic offensive threats from last year, Myles Campbell and Jordan Dooley, were lost to graduation after contributing 1,512 yards of total offense and 10 touchdowns, the Wildcats have some firepower returning.
Most notable among the returners is quarterback Thaddeus Bell pictured), who completed 78 of 134 passes (58.2 percent) and threw for 1,115 yards and 12 TDs as a sophomore last year.
And he’ll have no shortage of speedy and athletic, though inexperienced, weapons to throw to, including senior Tyler Davis, who figures to see his role expanded from a year ago.
“Tyler played behind some seniors last year,” first-year Duluth coach Jason Conner said. “We had four senior receivers we’re going to have to replace. Tyler’s done a great job this summer being a leader and the go-to guy on offense in our 7-on-7s. He’s going to be a special player for us, and he’s going to play at the college level.”
As important as it will be for the Wildcats to find answers among inexperienced players at receivers, it will be equally important for youngsters to grow up in a hurry at running back, where most of the team’s productivity graduated last year.
Despite relying on less tested players in the backfield, Conner fully expects the Wildcats to be much more balanced this year, thanks to a bigger, stronger, more experienced line, led by senior tackle Blaise Burroughs.
“We want to throw the ball and run the ball,” Conner said. “So, that’s going to be important for us to establish. I think Duluth’s always been able to move the ball, but we need to take care of the ball better, and in game situations, we need to be able to put the ball in the end zone by running the football.
“I have two tackles who are going to be the anchors of our line, and both of them will play college football (some day). … Those two guys proved to me this spring that they are going to step up and really show our OL to be more physical. In the middle OL wise, we’re going to be not young, but inexperienced. The good thing is, we feel like we’re very strong. … I think we have taken a small step. I do think we have to take a better step.”
As with the offense, Conner believes one of the most notable differences with the Duluth defense will be improved strength, especially along the line of scrimmage.
While the Wildcats remain undersized in some spots, particularly in comparison to many of their Region 7-AAAAAA opponents, Conner is confident they will be able to hold their own.
“I believe we’ve closed the strength gap, and that’s going to be very important,” Conner said. “I think our … front six on the defensive line, every one of them power-cleaned 300 pounds. I believe that’s a big step. We measure our strength through power and explosiveness. That’s not happened at Duluth, and that’s a really good thing for us this year.”
Seniors Burroughs and Evan Ubakanma will be two important pieces of the defensive front six Conner spoke of, but perhaps the most important piece will be inside linebacker Amari Barrett.
The senior said the Wildcats’ improved strength, as well as attention to detail, will be the biggest difference this season.
“The most important thing that we realize that will take Duluth to that next level are all the little things,” Barrett said. “(Former) Coach (Corey) Jarvis left a great foundation for us to be great athletes, great individuals in the classroom, just great students at all levels of the game. But now, since we have Coach Conner as our new coach, and all the amazing staff he’s brought in, we’re just looking to take it to the next level — to make it to the playoffs.”
In addition to Conner being promoted from offensive coordinator to succeed former coach Jarvis as he moved on to Mays High School in Atlanta, there are two other new coaches on his staff who could provide a major impact on the Duluth program.
One is new defensive coordinator Bob Swank, who not only has head coaching experience on the high school level at Pope High School in Cobb County, but also has coached on the college level at Buffalo State College in New York.
The other is the new strength and conditioning coach Stoney Lunsford, who also has experience on both the high school and collegiate levels.
“He’s been a defensive coordinator at the college level, and he’s been a high school head coach,” Conner said of Swank. “He will bring a level of maturity that I’m going to rely heavily on. Coach Swank has done a great job teaching our defense in kind of a difficult situation, starting late and everything. We had a great spring.
“(Lunsford) comes from Clinton, S.C., a very successful AAA program in South Carolina. He worked for Mack Brown at the University of North Carolina, and he comes very recommended from college coaches. What he’s done for the boys is to teach them that every lift matters. We say to the boys that every time you show up, you get one percent better.”
The Wildcats turned some heads during the summer with their performance at Auburn University’s 7-on-7 Tournament, where they advanced to the semifinals before falling in a close game to South Carolina powerhouse Byrnes.
“I think a great lesson was learned,” Conner said. “When we jumped on (Byrnes) by two scores before losing, they showed our boys what it means to be a championship-caliber program. I think our guys learned from that, and I’ve seen a level of play that I’m excited about. It’s good to expose our kids to some tough competition before we even step into (the season).” …
Also turning heads this summer was incoming freshman receiver and return specialist Jamyest Williams, who caught attention with his speed, including being clocked as fast as 4.41 seconds during a test run in the 40-yard dash.
“I think he’s going to bring a dynamic to our return game that’s pretty special,” Conner said. “I think he and some of our other players like Tyler Davis … will help us in our return game, which is going to be important in our region getting yardage, and something that we need to perform better at to be competitive.”