A 6-4 regular season and a near win in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs last season had the Shaw Raiders feeling confident about the progress the team was making.
The defense was strong, particularly in the front seven, and the offense was led by All-Bi-City offensive player of the year Chandler Whittlesey.
While the Raiders enter 2013 without Whittlesey under center, coach Kyle Adkins said he’s still happy with where the team is at with three weeks left before opening weekend.
“You’re never 100 percent satisfied,” he said. “I know there are areas where we’ll have to get better, but I’m pretty happy with where we’re at.”
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The defense is further along than the offense, he said, and the team will have to rely on that side of the ball at times, especially early as the Raiders try to find continuity on the offensive line and in the passing game. The offense will come, Adkins said, it just takes longer to find its identity.
“You can’t replace a Chandler Whittlesey at quarterback,” he said. “What you hope you can do is get better somewhere else or find someone who has similar tools. That’s basically what we’ve done, and it’s just going to take some more time.”
Shaw will have its work cut out for it, playing Carver and Hardaway outside of its region and a gauntlet of talented teams inside it, including state power Sandy Creek.
“I read somewhere where they called our region the SEC of AAAA football,” Adkins said. “You don’t get a break in this region. We hope that experience can help us in the long run.”
Adkins said the Raiders return six players on offense, though more than that had plenty of playing time a year ago. They rotate players often, so there will be no shortage of game experience on that side of the ball.
On the contrary, however, replacing Whittlesey will be the hardest task for the unit.
Adkins wouldn’t name a successor at the position yet, but junior Caleb Bishop and senior Cyle Hobbs are battling at the position.
It’s doubtful they will replace Whittlesey’s 2,350 yards and 20 touchdowns passing and 674 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing. Adkins is just looking for them to be comfortable in running an offense, which carries an up-tempo pace.
Where the offensive line lacks size, it makes up for in that area. Four of five spots on the line will be filled by players 230 pounds or less, though Adkins singled out senior offensive tackle Austin Hester as a major help.
“Either this year or next year, he will be on of the higher recruited offensive linemen in the country,” Adkins said of the 6-foot-4, 270-pound sophomore. “Any time you have a big body at a young age, it takes time to groom, but we’re expecting him to do some good things for us.”
Adkins is confident in the other four positions, manned by Mitchell Gaddis, Tajai Singletary and Zack Fowler at guard, Holten Shea at center and Jordan Avera at right tackle.
Seniors Desmond Gomillia and Brent McKelvin return in the running game along with wide receivers Jakobi Long, Kenterill Boden and Rodney Clark. Quentin Jackson holds the tight end job.
Speaking of Gomillia and Long, Adkins said both had shown a lot of progress at their respective positions.
A strength of the team a year ago, the defense returns four players in 2013, including defensive tackle Deandre Howard and linebacker Ja’Corey Butler.
Speaking of Howard, Adkins said the defensive tackle makes the defense go.
“He was unblockable in the spring, unblockable so far in the preseason,” he said. “We’re expecting big things.”
He said the same of Butler, who recorded 65 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2012.
B.J. Thames, William Maben, Zarius Kelly and Cyle Hobbs will join Howard on the defensive line. Jonathan Lyons, Dequandre Green, Tay Williams and Quinard Thomas will play at linebacker.
A major strength last season, the front seven should again be strong, Adkins said.
Tayshun Davis, Sydarrian Cobb and Amarkion Sharpe will fill three of the four secondary slots.
The unit is ahead of the offense for now, Adkins said, and will be a major determining factor of the team’s success early in the season.
In their 21-14 loss to Monroe Area in the playoffs last year, the Raiders led most of the game only to lose the game late. Adkins said that was an important experience for his team.
“I definitely think that playoff game was good for us,” he said. “We just let it slip away, but that’s something we’ve been harping on in the offseason—finishing things. We don’t want to leave any doubt.”
The schedule isn’t easy, with six teams who could make a run at the postseason out of Region 5-AAAA, Adkins said. Shaw once again appears to be in good position to make a run at its third postseason. The hope this year is to take the next step when the time comes.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.