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The offense has some major holes to fill with the graduation of quarterback Taylor Grant, who threw for 2,000 yards, and receiver Marty Sanders, who had 1,000 yards receiving. Sophomore Tahj Tolbert and junior Canyon Cook are battling for the starting QB job.
“We’re still trying to find out which guy wants to take the bull by the horns,” Lanier head coach Billy Wells said.
Whoever emerges will have a new group of receivers to work with this season after the unit graduated all four last year.
Timothy Leazer has emerged as one of the team’s receivers, while Devin Valentine, Ashton Barnes and Bolaji Ojolola are battling for the other spot. Valentine was a state champion in the triple jump.
“We just don’t have those guys that have played at the varsity level,” Wells said. “We have to grow in a hurry with the guys we have.”
The backfield has a familiar face with Tario Fuller (pictured), the team’s leading rusher from a year ago with 818 yards and three TDs.
“Tario for us is an emotional leader,” Wells said. “He’s a super kid. He has a lot of energy at practice.
“He’s a physical running back. We have high expectations for him.”
The offensive line should be a strength with three starters back and the unit averaging 6-foot-2, 268 pounds. Center Travis Taylor and guards Mitchell Bennett and James Hanrahan return. Tackle Dewey Van Allen, a Division I prospect, played at Duluth as a sophomore and had to sit out last season for transferring.
A big reason for Lanier’s success last season was the defense. A major part of the unit returns with three linebackers returning.
Inside linebacker Michael Shaw, a Division I college prospect, four-year starter Jesse Landers and top returning tackler Ricky Viengxay are all back at linebacker. Viengxay was among the county’s leading tacklers with 102 stops last year.
“Three senior linebackers doesn’t hurt from an experience standpoint,” Wells said.
The defensive line should also be a strength with returning starters Travon McSwain and Darius Daniels back. The 6-7, 230-pound McSwain has already received Division I scholarship offers and at the other end Derrick Brown is a promising player.
“The athleticism of our defensive ends, we hope those guys will come on,” Wells said.
The biggest concern of the defense is the secondary, where the Longhorns have to replace three of four starters. Grey Lee Williams is the only returner of the group.
“The maturity and how we grow and minimize the mistakes for those guys will be big,” Wells said.
GROWING UP FAST
Lanier is entering its fourth year of existence and has already made great strides on the football field. The program played its first full varsity season a year ago and nearly made the playoffs with a 5-5 record. The difference was an overtime loss and not converting fourth-and-three in another game.
“Going into our second year of varsity play after going .500 last year, our kids are hungry and I know our coaching staff is, too, to do more,” Wells said. “It was a game of inches. That kind of hangs in the back of all our minds. We want to improve on that. We made a lot of progress in year one of varsity play, but expectations and wanting to mature and wanting to do a little better is on our agenda.”
Lanier started a ninth-grade team a year ago to compliment the JV squad it used in 2010 and 2011.
“We’re trying to mature the ninth grade and JV programs so they are good feeders for the varsity,” Wells said. “That’s probably as big of thing as any to develop that depth in the program.”
Lanier added two members to its coaching staff. Spencer Landis, a 2006 Dacula grad, will coach in the secondary. Landis was an all-county selection in 2005 after leading the Falcons to the state semifinals. He coached last season at Norcross, the Class AAAAAA state champions. The other addition is John Embry, who will coach the defensive tackles. Embry was an assistant on St. Pius’ Class AAA state runner-up team last season. “You add two guys that played for the state championship last year and that’s not bad. We’re very thankful to have them,” Wells said. … Lanier has only had two players sign college football scholarships, but that should change this February. The Longhorns are expected to have at least two Division I signees in Van Allen and Shaw. The 2015 class features McSwain, a highly recruited linebacker. … Lanier has 152 players in the program from 9th through 12th grade, including 18 seniors.