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Bulldogs have been playing a game of catch-up the entire off-season

Posted: August 18, 2015 9:38 a.m.
Updated: August 19, 2015 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I photo/

SENIOR END TYRONE KELLY is one of three returning starters on the Camden defense for the 2015 season.

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It was a trade-off over which Jimmy Neal had no control. 

While the South Carolina High School League’s Appeals Committee voted to allow Camden High to participate in last season’s AAA state playoffs in the wake of an October post-game fracas with Dreher, the group upheld the High School League’s original decision to prohibit the Bulldogs from attending any off-season camps as well as taking part in any passing league competitions.

The latter stipulations forced Neal and his team to play catch-up from the outset of this summer’s scrimmages leading into what should be an interesting season for Camden which comes off a 5-6 campaign which ended in a first round playoff loss to Belton-Honea Path last November.

Normally, Neal said, his team would enter pre-season practice on the same page and be a step ahead of the game in most facets. In this, his 18th season on the sidelines at his alma mater, there has been plenty of learning on the fly in scrimmages and last Friday’s Camden Shrine Club  Jamboree due to the Bulldogs’ not being allowed to face other teams over the summer.

Neal made no bones about the sanctions having put his team behind the 8-ball entering Friday’s season opener with Lugoff-Elgin.

“We’ve missed a lot of practice time this year,” said Neal who is a win shy of career victory number 125 at CHS. “There are some things that we’re a little bit behind on which we don’t like being behind on at this stage of the game. We’re doing the best we can to catch up and make up for it.”

One thing which Neal was appreciative of was that in the first two scrimmages, teams used a portion of their time to allow 7-on-7 drills to be built into the day’s proceedings. “Against Fort Dorchester,” he said of his team’s first scrimmage, it looked like it was our first day of passing league. Then, we looked better in the second one. Hopefully, we will continue to get better.”

In spite of staying home for the summer due to sanctions scheduled to be lifted in October, the Bulldogs circled the wagons. Neal said spending days and hours in the weight room and on the practice field may actually have brought his squad closer together. If the team was upset about not being able to play other schools in the summer, it was hard to tell from their attitude.

“It’s been an outstanding off-season, until now,” Neal said in alluding to the recent passing of senior wide receiver Drew David.

“Did we miss the passing league? Yes, we did. In our first couple scrimmages this year, it was evident that we hadn’t done those things so the coaches of our opponents worked with us on it and we did some passing league stuff then just to get our guys into that mindset a little bit. That helped us.

“I’m excited about our guys. We got better from day one and, now, we have to continue doing that.”

Camden lost 16 starters from last fall’s squad. Several of those players were team leaders either by their actions or, words. Neal said, in a perfect world, a player or two from the current crop of Dogs will step up and fill those shoes.

“I was wondering that and I hope it does,” Neal said when the role of being a team leader was broached. “There were some personalities on last year’s team who kept people going and kept things upbeat, emotionally. Right now, we’re not there. We’re playing hard, doing the right things and working hard to get better. But right now, we have to feed off that a little more.

“We’ve always said here that the coaches have to be the leaders. Do we like it when the players are leaders? Yes. We wish they would take over more but if they’re not going to do it, then we, as coaches, have to do it.”

In listing what his lineup may look like in week zero, Neal was also not ready to say that all the starters have their jobs locked up. There are battles going on for starting berths as well as for playing time at virtually every position on the field.

Neal said the task he and his coaching staff find themselves in the final days of pre-season practice is to make sure the right players are in the right spots and that the best 22 players will be on the field.

“We’re searching in a couple positions but the guys are trying, going hard and doing good things,” he said. “I think that in some ways, we’re going to be similar to last year’s team with the experience that we have.”

 

The Offense  The Bulldog offense will, for the most part, line up with a tight end and in the I formation. The first team scored three times in a scrimmage with 4A Fort Dorchester which allowed the offensive coaches to breathe a little easier.

 “The offense is coming around,” Neal said. “We’re not there, yet, but I doubt anybody in the state feels like they’re ready, right now. We wish we were a little farther along than we are right now.”

 

Quarterbacks  After having won the quarterback battle midway last season, Devin Beckley promptly sustained an injury to his right (throwing) hand in his first start against Lower Richland. Fully healed, the 6-foot-3, 193-pound junior is the unquestioned number one signal-caller for the Dogs.

In limited action last season, Beckley threw for 238 yards and a touchdown. This time around, Neal has seen a more mature, more confident quarterback.

“Devin understands the game pretty well and with that, we are able to throw passes that we have not been able to throw the last few years and run certain routes,” he said.

Backing up Beckley will be sophomore Campbell Jordan (6-0, 150) who gained valuable experience in directing the first team offense in spring practice while Beckley was playing baseball for the Bulldogs.

 

Running Backs  This is an area of concern. The graduation of Kendrice Slater took away a running back who not only rushed for nearly 1,800 yards 13 touchdowns the last two years, but was a hard-running workhorse back was able to get the tough yards inside and could carry tacklers on his back for extra yardage.

There are no players of Slater’s ilk on the roster this time around. In fact, the Bulldogs are looking for someone on whom they can hang their hat when it comes to the ground game. Senior Ethan Harris (5-6, 150) rushed for 128 yards in 2014 while also returning a kickoff for a 79-yard touchdown against West Florence. Junior Barrett Coleman (5-7, 163) ran for 14 yards on limited varsity carries last season. Two players who have made their marks in the pre-season and should see playing time in the backfield are freshman Deldrik Jones (5-8, 160) and sophomore Lance McCray (5-7, 185) in what may be a tailback by committee approach until one separates himself from the rest of the pack.

“Running back is kind of a question mark,” Neal said. “We’re not sure who is going to be the fullback or our starting tailback.”

 

Receivers  In 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior wide out Taylor Kelly, the Dogs have a potential game-breaker who is the team’s leading returning receiver after making 32 grabs for 332 yards and two touchdowns last fall. But Kelly missed a majority of the pre-season with a basketball-related injury. His return to the lineup will be a welcomed one, especially by Beckley.

The Bulldogs need to find a second option to stretch the field and are looking at junior Avery Barnes (5-9, 155), who had eight catches for 65 yards as a sophomore, converted defensive end Travis Jiles (6-2, 180) and junior Jeremy Green (5-8, 138) to fill that role. In addition, junior Jo Jo Watson (5-9, 160) and senior Christian Flick (5-11, 155) can be brought over from their starting role on the defensive side of the football to provide depth at receiver.

In senior Parker Rankin (6-2, 220), Camden has an athletic tight end who can make plays in the open field and has more speed than most players who sometimes play with their hand in the dirt. Neal believes Rankin, who will handle the punting chores after averaging 36 yards per boot in 2014, could be sitting on a big senior season.

“Parker Rankin is having a really good pre-season after having a great off-season,” Neal said.

 

Offensive Line  A year ago, injuries and an illness to starting guard Robert Warnock led to offensive line coach Emet Reyes’ having to employ a “next man up” strategy. With Warnock out for the season and a defection or two, this unit already has an altered look.

There are two holdovers in senior tackle Dylan Reyes (5-11, 220) and junior DeShawn Sumpter (6-1, 280) who return to their starting jobs on the left side. Junior Donovan Engram (6-1, 225) has made the switch from defensive to offensive line and will either start at center or at right guard. Junior Trey Watkins (5-1, 290) came in for Warnock last season and was playing as well as any CHS lineman until he sustained an injury. He is back and will play either center or right guard. Ben Janssen, a 5-10, 210-pound junior transfer from Thomas Sumter Academy, is slotted in at right tackle.

Neal said one player to keep an eye out for on the offensive front is freshman J. T. Salmond (6-0, 248), who could work his way into a starting role at some point this season.

 

Defense  Having lost eight starters on defense, Camden is not in as bad a shape as you might think. Three starters are back along the line of scrimmage and an athletic secondary has jelled in the pre-season while a new set of linebackers looks to make their mark in the 4-3 scheme.

 

Defensive Line  One spot which was not a concern on this side of the ball was left end which will again be manned by senior Tyrone Kelly. The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder, had team-best numbers in sacks (five), quarterback pressures (10) and tackles for loss (13) to go along with 60 tackles (46 solos) last season. He is a dominating player which 24/7sports.com ranks as the 22nd-best senior prospect in the Palmetto State.

Across the way, juniors Will Warnock (6-4, 190) and Troy Radden (5-11, 210) are battling for the starting job at right end. Manning the inside spots will be seniors Darrius Clark (6-1, 270) and Nick Jenkins (6-2, 286). Clark had 29 tackles with a sack, nine tackles for loss and a fumble recovery for a touchdown last year while Jenkins is another run-stopper who had 18 tackles including three behind the line of scrimmage. Sophomore Dontrell Sutton (6-1, 255) and junior Montraz Johnson (6-1, 250) will also see time on the interior front. “We feel pretty good about where we are with those guys,” Neal said of his defensive line. “We’re going to be fine there”

 

Linebackers  This is a group which is long on athleticism, talent and desire whose only drawback is playing experience.

A year ago, William Cobb saw most of his playing time come at running back in rushing for better than 80 yards in a win over Richland Northeast. This time around, the 6-foot, 205-pounder is being moved to linebacker. He will be joined there by senior Sterling Felder (6-0, 170), who had 12 tackles as a junior, and junior S.J. Lucas (5-6, 211) who was in on eight tackles last season.

In what is already a young group, the Dogs will have sophomore Ryan Dabbs (5-11, 185) and freshman Tyler Maxwell (6-1, 185) waiting in the wings for their opportunity.

“They are talented but young,” Neal said of the linebacking corps. “One thing about them is that they have gotten better every day. They just have to play downhill and get into the right gaps.”

 

Defensive Backs Like the front four, the four backs boast experience.

Senior Ben Hayes (6-0, 195) returns at one safety and is the team’s leading returning tackler with 64 stops last season. Not shy about coming up to play the run, Hayes also had an interception last season. He will be joined by Flick, his fellow safety and classmate. Flick played on the corner last year and rang up 31 tackles with an interception while breaking up three passes. 

The aforementioned Watson, who had an interception and four tackles in limited time on defense as a junior, will start at one corner with 6-foot, 145-pound D.J. James on the other side. 

“This might be the best secondary we’ve had here in a while,” Neal said of his team’s final line of defense. “We feel good about where those guys are going to be before it’s all over with.”

 

Keep Pounding  With so many young players and/or first-time starters, Neal said one thing which he is anxious to see is how his players react both to success and when things do not go their way.

“There will be times in games where a young team may not handle things very well when we face adversity,” Neal said. “If we can handle adversity, I think that we will be OK. I’m not saying that we’re going to go 15-0 or anything like that even though, obviously, you hope to do that. But when the time comes when we do face adversity, we need to handle it well.”

 

Staying Healthy Like almost every high school football program, Neal is confident that his starters can get the job done. But should injuries take down astarter for a time, the Bulldogs get thin. 

Camden’s 54-player roster includes 41 underclassmen with 19 sophomores and five freshmen. That load of inexperience could lead to a coach having many a sleepless nights worrying about having to dip too deep into his bench. But Neal and company have already planned for such an occurrence with starters being given reps on both sides of the football. That is something which CHS, which had been almost exclusively two-platoon since Neal’s arrival, may be forced to do this season.

“We have to stay healthy,” Neal said without the slightest bit of hesitation in his voice. “There will be some times where guys will be going both ways which is something we haven’t done much of here. They’ve all jumped on board and they are excited about the opportunity to do it. It doesn’t faze them; they’re all team guys and we appreciate that.”

In one respect, having a player go both ways might mean one or more of the Bulldogs’ best athletes will be on the field for a longer stretch than normal. That, Neal admitted, would not be a bad thing.

“There may be cases where defensive starters play on offense or, your offensive starters have to play on defense because that is what the situation dictates. When you do that,” he said, “you put your better people on the field so, it does help you. The key is going to be can they go out and do it a couple plays a game without it hurting their primary position? And, maybe, nobody gets hurt and we won’t have to do it at all.”


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