Football season begins

Changes aplenty for Bobcats
Fresh off its most successful 4-year stretch, GHS experiences offensive, defensive, coaching overhaul
by Robbie Bills

Tremendous success followed by equally impressive upheaval has rarely been seen at Gilmer High School.

But following a four-year football record of 32-12 and the resignation of former head coach Wes Tankersley, that is just what happened.

Zach Grage took over the program when he was hired in March, and after five months on the job, is pleased with what he has gotten out of Bobcat players, as well as coaches. In addition to Grage, five assistants will spend their first season at GHS in 2015, which includes new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Grage is happy with the Bobcats’ progress, but noted there is still room to grow.

“It’s been just a little over five months since I took the job,” Grage said in an interview last week. “I talked to the guys last night and if you think about where we were, until now ... they’ve done more than they’ve ever done over a summer. I’ve required more out of them. It showed last week at Pebblebrook that we’ve come a long way. We’re not near where we need to be or where we’re going to be. I think you can see we’ve progressed from point A to B and we’re trying to get to C. I’m very pleased with where we’re at.”

Team workouts and two-player-per-coach practices were conducted throughout April. Spring practice was held May 4-15 and two and three hour team workout sessions began June 1. The Cats spent June and July attending team camps and 7-on-7 passing leagues. Official, full-pad practices kicked off Aug. 1.

The increased preparation has extended to the school year as well. As the weight training coach, Grage has the “top 47 players” in his first block class. Once the workout is completed, they watch film of the previous day’s practice. The coaching staff uses film sessions to correct mistakes and spend time teaching to maximize the efficiency of on-field practice time.

“We watch tape on a daily basis,” Grage said. “It’s imperative that we do that. I told the administration when I took this job, ‘We’re going to get the work in.’ If we weren’t able to do that with the schedules, then we were going to bring them in before school. We can either have kids come in at 6 a.m. or they can come in at 8 a.m., but we’re going to get it done.”

New offense, defense

Gone are the days of GHS’ wing-T offense. Today, Gilmer runs a spread attack that will attempt to snap the ball as many times as possible every Friday night. Defensively, GHS will shift from a four-man front to a 3-3 odd stack. The formation will utilize three linemen, three linebackers, two corners, two safeties and a “spur,” which is a safety, linebacker hybrid.

“We have to scale down and get really good at our basic stuff and then see where our kids do well,” Grage said of Gilmer’s newly implemented schemes. “I told our coaches to try and split the season in three sections. The first three games are nonregion. So, we have a plan for that and we also have a plan for right when we hit Cartersville with the region. Then we have another plan when we'll bring it in for the playoffs. We’re not going to look at it as we’re going to have everything in week one.”

Gilmer returns four offensive starters led by all-region performer (last season at cornerback), senior Thaddeus Bowers at the slot receiver position. He caught 34 passes for 537 yards and set a GHS record of nine touchdown receptions last season. He will be backed up by sophomore Dillan Ledford and freshman Austin Daman. The outside receiver will be junior Drake Crump with sophomore Blake Buntin and Logan Harvey waiting in the wings.Tight ends will be senior Jake Parker and sophomore Greg Engler. Griffin Cagle will start at flaker where Tanner Cantley will see the field as well.

Senior Russell Cochran returns at running back. He set a GHS seasonal record with 1,662 rushing yards last season. He set a single game record as well versus LaFayette with 330 yards. He finished the season with 20 touchdowns and an all-state honorable mention. Cochran began this season on the preseason all-state list. He will be backed up by Daman and freshman Chris Coates.

Junior Tyler Buntin will start at quarterback and freshman David Smith will be his back-up.

All-region offensive lineman and United States Navy verbal commitment Garrett Sellers returns for his senior season after starting the previous two. He anchors the line at center and will be flaked on the left and right by junior letterman Levi Seabolt and Dylan Stewart. Left tackle will be Dustin Brenner and right tackle is a “toss-up” between juniors Nathan Fitzgerald, David West, Alex Gill and sophomore Jhaydon Ragsdale.

“Offensively, it’s a  growing pain,” said Grage. “Our days consist of great plays and not so great plays. There are very few that are just average. I thought coming from a wing-T that we would be good at the gap scheme and blocking down and pulling, but that’s what we’re weak at. They’ve really picked up the zone (blocking) concept. Russell is one we’ll never have to worry about. He’ll do whatever you ask. The throw game is a process and Tyler has grasped it well. Can we catch it and after that do something with the ball is the question.”

Seven starters and eight lettermen return to the Bobcats’ defense. The line will be comprised of senior Shane Bowman at nose tackle and senior Casey Dyer and junior Austin Lacy at defensive ends. All lettered and started last season.  Lacy led the trio with 22 tackles and five sacks. Bowman finished the season with 15 tackles and Dyer tallied three after playing mostly offense. Senior Henry Nguyen is expected to be one of the first reserves off the bench.

Senior Noble Zuschlag and junior Kamron Engler return at linebacker after starting last season. Zuschlag had 99 tackles last year and Engler chalked up 66. They will be joined by senior Lucas Bramlett, who started at defensive end last year and made 35 tackles and recorded 6 - 1/2 sacks. Sophomore Ryan Crump and freshman James Dover will see varsity action in reserve roles.

Juniors Chandler Sutton and Kell Kiker will play cornerback. Kiker lettered last season and made 18 tackles as a back-up. Juniors Drew Dyer and Josh White will play safety. White started last season and made 36 stops. Spur will be played by senior Avery Sirmans.

“Defensively, we have to be sound,” Grage began. “Friday (against Pebblebrook) we just didn’t tackle very well. You can say it was (their) speed or we just didn’t take great angles, but our in-game adjustments just weren’t very good because we kept making the same mistakes. After we were able to talk to the kids during halftime, things got better. We’ll have an in-game replay system in place by next week and that’s going to help us a bunch.”

Special teams battle    

Kicking and punting duties will be handled by senior Alix Lopez and junior Rodrigo Casas. Zuschlag will snap on punts and Lacy will snap on extra points and field goals. Bowers and Kiker will serve as holders and also be the team’s kick and punt returners.

“Every week they’ll compete and whoever had the best week is who’s kicking on Friday,” Grage said of Casas and Lopez. “It’s no hard feelings, we’re just here to win ball games. Take care of your business and you’ll play, and that goes all the way across the board.”

New coaches join staff

In addition to Grage and coordinators Caleb Bagley and Sean Thom, Terry Luck, Michael Baker and Marc Bailey joined the coaching staff during the offseason. In addition to his head coaching duties, Grage will coach running backs and receivers. Luck played collegiately at the University of Nebraska, and will coach both units with Grage in addition to quarterbacks, the position he played for the Cornhuskers.

Bagley will run the offense and serve as the Cats’ offensive line coach. Dennis Wilson, one of three holdovers from last year’s staff, will coach the offensive line as well. Defensive coordinator Thom will coach linebackers. Veteran GHS coaches Casey Wingard and Matt Banks will coach linebackers and defensive linemen.

Bailey will coach cornerbacks and Baker will head up the safeties and spur position.

“Every day we’re learning,” Grage said of the new staff. “We have a coaches meeting every day and get our work done. The chemistry has been great. I want this (field house) to be their house. They teach up at the building (high school) and have their offices up there, but once they get here it’s football. Last week I had them all over to my house and it wasn’t about football, it was just about families. My wife (Mandy) has done a fantastic job getting the other wives together.”

Looking ‘beyond’

In years past, Gilmer has had a theme for each season, which has continued with Grage’s tenure. When he met with senior players before the season started, he challenged them to come up with a singular word to remind them of their purpose this year.    

Grage said, “I told them, ‘We want to have a word. We’re going to have one evey year. Something about what you want out of this season and what we’re trying to breed ourselves and use everything I’ve preached to you.’”

The word settled on was “beyond,” which Grage explained, “To go beyond what people said and beyond what people expect of us. When I took this job I said ‘The first round is great, but if that’s what you hired me for, then you hired the wrong guy.’ That’s what we’re trying to get the kids to buy into. We want to build a championship caliber program. Every day when we break it down it’s always ‘Beyond on three.’ We challenge the kids to not just say it, mean it.”

He added, “Every Friday we’re going to play with class and make our community proud. You can’t say enough about the people who have supported us and we haven’t even played a ball game yet. The excitement around here is at a high and it’s our job to keep that going. We’re going to do things the right way, play hard and never take a play off. The kids are going to be well-prepared and coached-up.”

Varsity Bobcats Schedule
Aug. 28 at Fannin
Sept. 4 vs. Dawson
Sept. 18 at Murphy (N.C.)
Sept. 25 at Cartersville
Oct. 2 vs. Ridgeland
Oct. 9 at Northwest
Oct. 16 vs. Southeast
Oct. 23 at LaFayette
Oct. 30 vs. Pickens
Nov. 6 vs. Heritage

Bold denotes home games. All games are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Homecoming will be Oct. 16 versus Southeast Whitfield.
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