Wesleyan’s Christian Stark
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The loss of perhaps the two most important components of last year’s offense would appear to put the Wolves in serious rebuilding mode this season.
After all, quarterback Will Anderson, who threw for 2,264 yards (sixth best in Gwinnett County) and 21 touchdowns (tied for fifth) last year before transferring to Lassiter High School in Cobb County. Receiver Jahmai Jones, who had 70 catches (second in the county) for 1,071 yards (third) and 12 TDs (tied for second), but has given up football to concentrate on baseball. The duo accounted for a huge chunk of the team’s production a year ago.
However, head coach Franklin Pridgen has a different way of looking at the situation.
“We’re not focused on who left the program,” Pridgen said. “We’ve still got enough to be excited about.”
One of the players who has Pridgen and his staff most excited is sophomore Jordan Mack, who made an impact as a freshman on both sides of the line of scrimmage last year with three catches for 40 yards, plus 29 tackles and an interception, and already has the attention of college programs.
“(Mack) already has an offer from Georgia Tech,” Pridgen said. “He’s a great weapon. We have a junior named John Krause. He’s very talented, and we’re excited to see what he can do. We also have seniors John Adent and John Walker and sophomore Tucker Cannon. So, there’s a lot for us to be excited about.”
The Wolves will look to a pair of candidates to try to get the ball to Mack and the rest of the receivers, with sophomore Drew Aspinwall and junior Christian Stark (pictured), who may also play at receiver and in the secondary, both likely to see action.
“They’ll both play,” Pridgen said. “We’re very comfortable with each of them. … We’re expecting them to have a lot of success. This is not our first rodeo. Looking for a quarterback is something we’ve done in past, and we’re pretty good at evaluating. They both bring a lot to the position.”
Juniors Ollis Robinson and Sam McWhorter and sophomore Josh Garrard figure to carry the load of the running game, but perhaps the biggest strength of the offense, in every sense of the word, is the line.
Anchored by three-year starter Stuart Johnson and fellow seniors Heath Middlebrooks, Hank Masters and Ryan Brennan, the Wolves figure to have the type of size and experience they haven’t had in several years.
“Depending on how some guys bounce back from illnesses and bumps and bruises, we could have as many as four senior starters,” Pridgen said. “Having kids like that helps a lot. If you can be experienced in only one place, offensive line is a good place. We’re very happy. It’s probably been since 2010 since we had a big, physical, dominant offensive line. We’ll run the ball better than we have in a couple of years, and I think we’ll throw the ball better than we’re expected to.”
The good news is that the same strength, size and experience that is present on the offensive line will be present on the defensive line.
The less-certain news is that players like Johnson and Middlebrooks will have to pull double duty, which could lead to depth issues should injuries arise.
“We’ll have some new faces also flip over and play some defense (this season),” Pridgen said. “We are a small school playing in (Class) AA, and we’re the smallest school in AA. Like a lot of schools, we’ll some have depth issues, but our front-line starters are very good.”
That will also be the case in the secondary where Mack returns to the starting lineup and Stark (29 tackles, 2 INTs) also figures to see action again.
“Those two kids played almost every snap in secondary (last year),” Pridgen said. “They should be able to give us the luxury of having some newcomers mature, hopefully rapidly, but without putting too much pressure on them.”
The linebacker corps figures to be considerably younger, with Robinson being the most experienced of the group.
“They’re very fast and very capable,” Pridgen said.
Pridgen made three important additions to his coaching staff over the offseason, with Joe Koch coming over from Region 6-AA rival Westminster to coach the offensive line and special teams, Stanley Davenport, a former college running back at Northwestern and coach at Decatur High School, joining the staff as community coach to work with the running backs and Chad Paroli working primarily with the Wesleyan scout team.
“It’s the largest staff we’ve ever had. We now have 10 (coaches) on varsity,” Pridgen said. “We’re excited about what they’ve brought (to the team) and the chemistry of staff. We’re really excited about their capability.”
BUILT TO LAST
As the smallest school in Class AA and with a corresponding small roster, Pridgen acknowledged that the Wolves’ depth, or rather the lack of it, was an issue in several games last season.
And it’s something he has vowed will be among the team’s biggest improvements this year.
“It’s been a major point of emphasis (in the offseason),” Pridgen said. “Hydration, nutrition and conditioning are major focuses, more than they’ve ever been before. Last year in our opener against Holy Innocents’, we lost seven players to cramps, and we ended up losing 10-9. When you lose that many players in addition to the low numbers we already have, it makes it impossible to finish a game.
“I definitely think depth was an issue (last year), not only in Week 1, but throughout the year. … We had a lot of games that were close at halftime, and some were close going into the fourth quarter. And we lost on the last play of the game to Lovett, and they wound up winning the region. … I’m sure (depth and conditioning) will challenge us again, but I think we’ll be more prepared this year.”