Four wins in two seasons usually doesn’t inspire much confidence. Not when a team suffers through losing streaks of six games one season and seven the next.
The Hardaway football team may be the exception.
The Hawks return a number of key players on both sides of the ball at running back, quarterback, offensive line, linebacker and more. The result is an excitement among players that hasn’t been present in some time.
“This might be the best team I’ve played on,” senior offensive lineman Desmond Barmore said last week after practice.
Coach Jeff Battles is quick to temper expectations, of course. The team is improved, players are excited, but there are certainly areas left to improve. With that said, there’s no time like the present, and the Hawks are approaching this season with that mentality.
“It’s going to take consistency,” Battles said. “Every team in this region can beat each other, and I think those teams that are consistent throughout region play will be the ones that come out on top.”
Hardaway has plenty to be excited about on this side of the ball in 2013, and the primary player to talk about there is junior running back Justin Crawford.
Crawford missed the first half of the 2012 season while his transfer to the school was cleared by the Georgia High School Association. For the final five games, however, he was Hardaway’s best player, rushing for 825 yards and seven touchdowns and piling up 1,243 all-purpose yards.
Crawford says he can improve on that pace this season.
“I’m not being cocky or anything, but I’m aiming for 2,000 rushing yards,” he said. “I really feel like that’s something I can do.”
If he does, a lot will come from his own superior ability, which should help Hardaway gain traction in the region early on, but plenty can be attributed to the rest of the offense as well.
In quarterback Blake Berry, Hardaway has a player who started at the position as a sophomore last season. Battles said Berry has a much better understanding of how to run the offense.
“Blake has matured a lot,” he said. “Mentally, he’s come a long way from last year to right now. He’s handling things a lot better. Getting that first year out of the way is big.”
And the Hawks may find their biggest strength in the offensive line. Led by Barmore, who is 6-foot-7 and nearly 300 pounds, the line features two three-year starters and two two-year starters. The only open position is at center, where two freshmen are battling for the position.
“It’s always scary to put a freshman in there, but I think both are smart enough and have the tools to progress nicely,” Battles said.
The team will mix its play calling, trying to be as balanced as possible, but as Crawford goes, so the success of the team will go also.
The defense doesn’t return quite as much as the offensive side of the ball, but it will be led by linebacker David Hall, who was voted to the All-Bi-City first team as a junior last season. Hall had more than 100 tackles, 16 coming for a loss, and his presence as a leader on the field will be huge for the Hawks.
Battles also named defensive lineman Chris Masenburge and Jalen Burgess as players important to the unit’s success.
“Burgess at corner has really tightened up the right side of the defense,” Battles said.
It’s no secret the unit as a whole will have to improve if Hardaway is to make the playoffs in 2013. The team allowed an average of 31.7 points per game in 2012, though that number is somewhat skewed because of contests against talented offenses from Lowndes and Thomas County Central.
While Lowndes, a non-region opponent, won’t count against the Hawks’ playoff chances in 2013, a 52-0 loss like it had against Thomas County Central last season can’t happen again.
That’s why Battles said he is preaching consistency. He wants to see the team start strong and finish stronger, maintaining a competitive level of play even when it is facing one of the state’s top teams.
Can Hardaway contend for a region championship this season? It’s hard to say, but the players felt like it was possible even in the midst of a 3-7 season in 2012.
“We lost by seven points to (region champion) Harris County, and then they went on a run into the playoffs,” Barmore said. “We felt like that could have been us. We just have to finish.”
If it does, then the excitement surrounding the team will prove to be well-founded. The team is talented. All that is left is to prove it between the lines.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.