Long snappers are a lot like plumbers. You never realize how much you need one until there is an inch of standing water in your kitchen.
No one has to tell Camden High football coach Jimmy Neal the importance of delivering a long snap to his team’s punter after the assortment of injuries which befell the Bulldogs a season ago.
In a year which got off to a promising 5-1 start, the wheels started coming off when CHS lost its first- and second-string deep snappers to injuries. After that, going into punt formation became hold your breath moments with graduated punter Charlie Nash’s view all-too-many times looking like an opponents’ team picture day.
Single-digit losses to Region 4-AAA foes Lower Richland and Chapin could be traced back to problems in the punting game while also rearing its ugly head in losses to Dreher and Westwood. That led to the Dogs closing the year on a four-game slide and staying home for the post season.
“If those problems don’t come up there’s no telling what would have happened last year,” Neal said. “We were playing pretty well and we’re on a roll. Those things happen, though. It was disappointing and frustrating but it was not due to a lack of effort on anybody’s part, it was just one of those things.
“Special teams fell apart on us. The injuries to our snappers were brutal. We probably win games seven and eight and no telling what happens in games nine and 10. Hopefully, we grew and learned from it as a team. I can tell you this; nobody was hurting worse than those guys out on the field.”
While Neal and company are crossing their fingers and knocking on wood for an injury free season for deep snappers Parker Rankin and Will Warnock, the Bulldogs hope they can build on last fall’s 5-5 campaign and turn this into a playoff season.
“You’d like to think that will happen,” Neal said. “The biggest thing is are we going to win some close games? We have to expect to win and plan to win. They’ve worked hard to win and they want to win. I guess the question is, ‘Do we expect to win?’
“Some of the mistakes we made last year hurt us. We were really in pretty good shape there at one point and then, some things fell apart on us which was disappointing. But these are hard-working guys who give you great effort.”
While what happens over the course of the next 11 weeks will determine whether or not CHS will still be playing come November, Neal said he is convinced that his team put in the necessary work in the off-season for the program to take another step in the right direction. While the number of players on the squad may be down a tad from some seasons, the 17th year Bulldog boss said this group is eager to see their hard work pay off.
“Our numbers are slightly down but we’ve had more commitment from our guys, which has been neat. They have been where they are supposed to be,” Neal said. “These are typical Camden kids. They want to be aggressive, they want to play hard and they pull for their teammates. It’s a good group of guys to be around.”
While having tweaked a formation here or there, after having made visits to several college and high school programs in the off-season, Camden will carry the same philosophy into this season as it has had in the past under Neal. First, he said, the Dogs need to be balanced on offense while being aggressive and getting to the football on defense.
That latter may be the more advanced of the two units heading into Friday’s season opener at Lugoff-Elgin. With seven returning senior starters, the Bulldogs should be a farther along on the defensive side of the football, a fact which Neal did not dispute.
“We have a very talented group of seniors and I think they’re going to really going to play well and have a good year,” Neal said of the 16-player senior class. “We have seven senior starters on defense and that is a reason we’re feeling as good as we are defensively.”
Senior Welton Cauthen (6-4, 205) returns at one defensive end following a junior campaign in which he had 40 tackles while posting a team-best 18 quarterback sacks. On the inside, senior Tyrik Jones (6-3, 262) is back after a 30-tackle junior season and a strong off-season while junior Tyrone Kelly (6-4, 225) is the other quick and rangy end along Camden’s three-man front.
Kelton Young, a 5-8, 216-pound senior, Nick Jenkins, a 6-1, 293-pound junior andsenior Orlando Williams (6-2, 250) will see action at tackle while Darius Clark, a 6-2, 236-pounder, will also get his share on time along the front line which Neal said has become a strength of the team and is playing low and has gotten after people in scrimmages.
“The thing we have to worry about with our guys is that they play so hard that they, sometimes, play themselves out of position,” Neal said. “We need to stay where we are supposed to be.”
The Bulldogs went into spring practice trying to develop depth at linebacker given the fact that three senior starters were coming back in Tyrel Smith (6-3, 190) and Omar Mingo (6-1, 180) flanking Brandon McCaskill (5-9, 216).
Smith, who played his way into a starting role last season, was second on the team with 97 tackles. The athletic Mingo was third with 77 stops with seven coming behind the line of scrimmage while McCaskill, the unit’s emotional leader, had 63 tackles with 36 of those of the solo variety.
“Those guys are good and are really playing well,” Neal said of his veteran linebacking trio. “They’re not perfect, by any means, but they are playing hard and they’re aggressive.”
Look for sophomore S.J. Lucas, who at 5-6, 195 pounds may well be the strongest player on the team, junior Hunter Kirkley (6-0, 170), junior Sterling Felder (6-0, 167) and sophomore Garrit Strunga (5-1, 150) to find their way onto the field in backup roles.
In senior safety Nelson Semple (6-0, 166), Camden has a third-year starter who has gotten the job done on and off the field. An honors student in the classroom, Semple has a take no prisoners style on the gridiron. A year ago, he rang up a county-best 115 tackles. He also picked off a pair of passes and this time around, will handle the punting and kicking chores for good measure.
“Nelson is an outstanding player who is being recruited by a lot of schools … academic schools,” Neal said of Semple who is hardly shy in coming up to play the run. “He’s an outstanding player.”
Junior Ben Hayes (6-0, 190), who missed a good chunk of last season due to injury, is the other safety. The corner slots belong to senior Darius Smith (5-8, 190) and junior DeSonta Cauthen (6-0, 180). Junior Christian Flick (5-11, 155) will see time at cornerback while junior Trey Greene (5-11, 180) will be in the mix at safety after he recovers from a broken foot as will sophomore John Cantey (6-0, 130) and six-foot, 160-pound junior K’Shaughn Natt.
With a new quarterback under center, the Bulldogs will look to their three seniors to help get the offense --- which Neal admitted is still a work in progress --- into gear. A season ago, Kendrice Slater (5-11, 212) rushed for a team-high 979 yards while scoring six touchdowns. Classmates Chase Truesdale (6-6, 222) and D.J. Wilson (6-4, 207) provide large targets at tight end and wide out, respectively. Truesdale had 12 catches for 87 yards and a touchdown while Wilson had four grabs for 128 yards including a 79-yarder for a touchdown in a conference win over A.C. Flora.
“Kendrice is a hard-nosed downhill runner,” Neal said of Slater who had a breakout 2013 season. “I think Chase is a great player. He’s a good, old physical blocker. D.J. is a leader who snatches the ball out of the air. He does a great job with that and runs good routes.”
Junior Jaylen Nelson (5-11, 170) and sophomore Devin Beckley (6-3, 185) are in a battle for the starting job at quarterback with neither of the pair having thrown a varsity pass coming into the season. Nelson was the junior varsity starter in 2013 and Beckley was the freshman team starter. Backing up that duo will be senior Braxton Bertram (5-8, 163) and freshman Campbell Jordan (5-10, 140).
“Both Jaylen and Devin are prepared to play,” Neal said of the battle for the starting quarterback role. “They will both play in that first game. They’re both coming along and playing very well. I don’t think it’s fair to either one of them to say that one’s going to be the starter and the other won’t play at all because they are both going to play and we’ll go from there.
“In a perfect world, it would be nice to have one quarterback who takes things over. But competition is good. This has happened here before and it will probably happen again where we have two talented quarterbacks who we’re excited about.”
The durable Slater will lift some of the burden to whoever takes the snaps while junior Jamar Byrd (5-9, 200) has had a strong camp and has played his way into a role of being Slater’s backup while also joining him in the backfield in two-back sets. Sophomore William Cobb (5-11, 185), speedy junior Ethan Harris (5-6, 155), senior Dillon Price (5-10, 155) and 5-7, 170-pound sophomore Barrett Coleman have also found their way into the backfield mix.
Along the interior, junior Dylan Reyes (5-10, 217) has worked his way into a starter at right tackle and brings a keen sense of the game to his post. Junior Robert Warnock (6-4, 290) is back at right guard as is junior center Timmy King (5-7, 225). The left side is less experienced with sophomore DeShawn Sumpter (6-1, 288) manning the guard position while fellow sophomores Stephen Campbell (6-2, 222) and Josh Wilson (6-0, 228) battle for the start at left tackle.
“The question is whether our sophomores will be bothered by those bright lights,” Neal said of a nagging question as to the offensive line and how the young players will react come game time.
Trey Watkins, a 5-11, 270-pound junior, backs up both guards and can play tackle, if needed, while sophomore Tariq Johnson (5-9, 196) can play center as well as other spots along the line.
Backing up Truesdale will be Rankin, a 6-2, 210-pound junior, who can also be used in the H-back position. Wilson will be joined at wide out by junior Taylor Kelly (6-0, 178) who is coming off a huge junior varsity season. Providing depth at wide receiver will be junior Drew David (6-0, 175), sophomores Avery Barnes (5-6, 140) and Jo Jo Watson (5-8, 147) while freshman Jerico Murphy (5-10, 190) could push for playing time in the future.
While the defense has experience, Neal said he hopes that unit will continue to play well but not have to carry the burden of having to keep the Bulldogs in games in the early going.
“Our defense has been playing very well early,” he said, “but we’re expecting our offense to come around when we get people on that side of the ball healthy and get more continuity over there. It’s a team thing and both sides have to pull their own weight.”