Slamming the brakes on a 3-8 campaign in 2017, his first season at the Camden High helm, head coach Brian Rimpf was pleased by his team’s flipping the eight from the Bulldogs’ loss column to that of the win side of the ledger last fall.
Rimpf, a former standout offensive tackle at East Carolina who went on to be drafted and played for the Baltimore Ravens, said as much as he stood in the middle of the field at Chapman High School following Camden’s 28-21 loss to the hosts in the second round of the AAA Upper State playoffs last fall.
Flip the calendar ahead some nine months and there was a caveat attached to that night in Inman. First, on that chilly November evening, the Dogs were marching down the field and were deep in Chapman territory, eyeing the go-ahead touchdown only to lose a fumble --- the team’s sixth in 12 games --- with less than five minutes to play at the Panthers’ 26. The hosts proceeded to go 74 yards for the winning touchdown.
As if that loss did not sting enough, three weeks later Chester --- a team which defeated Camden for the Region 4-AAA title in overtime, 21-19, --- capped a 15-0 season by upending favored Dillon for the AAA state championship, 34-28.
As Rimpf looked back on what could have been, he stopped himself and talked about the strides his program has made in two short years. At the same time, he stressed that neither he, nor his coaches or players are satisfied with just winning one postseason game.
“We wanted to win from day one. We just weren’t there in 2017,” he said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump. We were close in some games, but just didn’t have the attitude to win, whereas last year, we crossed over that hump. We didn’t fully get there because we lost in the second round --- really in the last three possessions of the game --- against a team that had gotten over the hump and were used to winning.
“That’s something that we have to do; we have to get these guys used to winning. Hopefully, last year was a stepping stone for that and this year, we can build off of it.”
From that 2018 squad, Camden’s first which won more than seven games since the nine-win 2010 team, 16 starters graduated. The heaviest of hits came on the defensive side of the football. In spite of those numbers, Rimpf is not lowering his expectations for a program which is on an upward trajectory.
“We’ve had some good players. You can plan all you want on how you want to be in two, three or four years, but unless you have good players, it’s going to take a lot more work,” he said of the state of the program.
“We have good players. We lost a lot last year from what was probably one of the best classes that came through Camden. We had such great depth at so many positions; seven went on to play in college. We had talent, but we really feel that we’ve replaced them and have reloaded. We’re not rebuilding, we’re reloading.”
A solid offseason has Rimpf and company eagerly anticipating the coming season. Attendance at workouts was high and most of the offensive and defensive schemes were in place by the time the team reconvened for the start of practice in August.
For those who think the Dogs may not have the talent to take another swing at the conference crown, Rimpf has some words of caution.
“I think what was encouraging about last year was the turnaround that we made from 2017 to 2018. We flipped our record, made it to the second round of the playoffs and won our first playoff game in almost 10 years. The guys developed a lot of confidence,” he said.
“We had a really good winter and spring with them. They guys we have moving up had been successful at the jayvee level for two years and had some confidence as far as winning football games. It really carried over. It was a really good winter, spring and summer. We had really good attendance and buy-in from the players. We’re hoping that will pay dividends for us this year.”
Gone are a big-play tailback who rushed for 915 yards and nine touchdowns while catching 32 passes for nearly 700 yards with nine grabs for touchdown in the graduated Shymeik Corbett. So too is starting quarterback Bryce Jeffcoat, who threw for 1,744 yards and 19 touchdowns and will join Corbett along with starting center Jason Harris at Erskine College.
In their place for an offense which scored better than 35 points a game will be a pair of backs who saw extensive time on the field last year, an athletic quarterback who has bided his time waiting for his chance and a 330-pound transfer who filled the one glaring hole along the offensive line.
“On offense, we expect to be a really good group,” Rimpf said of his players on that unit. “They weren’t necessarily the stars last year, but they have star quality. “We have some different formations and different plays that we are going to run on offense because of the talent that we have in different positions. We feel pretty confident about our offense.”
Jaffari Pearson, a 6-foot-1, 210-pounder, is ready to take over the offense at quarterback. He is the nephew of former Bulldog standout signal-caller Richie Williams, who quarterbacked Appalachian State to its first NCAA Division I-AA title in 2005.
Pearson was used sparingly at quarterback last year, completing three of his four passes for 49 yards and two touchdowns. He also saw time as a receiver. He is backed by newcomer Jackson Lollis, a 5-9, 170-pound senior.
With Corbett and his more than 1,750 total yards and 18 touchdowns off to Due West, the Dogs will have senior Mikah Davis (5-8, 168) and junior Willis Lane (5-7, 180) handling the rushing chores. Davis, the faster of the two, ran for 389 yards and seven touchdowns to go along with catching eight passes for 189 yards with three going for scores. Davis is a player who may be used along the same lines as Corbett as he will line up in the backfield while also being put in the slot as a receiver. Jaheim Williams, a 5-9, 170-pound junior, backs the duo up along with several defensive backs which could see their way to playing offense when needed.
Seniors Landon Goodwin (5-11, 182) and Davea’ Cauthen (6-0, 170) are back for their third seasons at wide out. Goodwin led the team with 42 catches for 643 yards with five touchdowns while Cauthen had 11 catches for 115 yards with two touchdowns. Last year, Camden brought up freshman Anthony Lyles (5-9, 160) for the final three games and all he would do was to catch nine balls for 103 yards and two touchdowns. In addition, the 5-9, 160-pounder was also entrusted on kickoff and punt returns, roles which he may fill again as a sophomore. Senior Jeremy Cotton (5-6, 140) has enjoyed a good offseason and will find his way on the field, as well.
An area of strength for this squad may well be the offensive line which features senior Banks Mosier (6-5, 280), who has locked down the left tackle slot after being a versatile player who played inside as a guard who needed in the past. Next to him at guard will either be juniors LaShayd Mickle (5-9, 270) or Edgar Noyola (5-9, 300) who are battling for the starting spot at left guard. Junior Drake Davis (6-2, 330), who transferred from Lugoff-Elgin, has fit in nicely at center. On the right side, senior Jerome Robinson (6-2, 270) blossomed at right guard last year while junior Donovan Edwards (6-3, 260) is coming into his own at right tackle. Nick Peebles, a 5-10, 260-pound junior, can step in to play either guard or, center while junior Kvuyan Clea (5-11, 240) can be inserted at tackle.
“We feel like we’re big and physical up front and we have some backs who can go,” Rimpf said. “We’re pretty excited about what we can do on offense.
“One dynamic that we’re going to have this year is at the quarterback position. Jaffari (Pearson) has all the tools. He’s a dual-threat guy. He can get the ball down the field. He has a really strong arm. He can also run really well. He’s one of those long striders where he doesn’t look like he’s going very fast, but he’s picking up a lot of ground as he’s going.”
While the CHS offense took some hits at graduation, they were almost nothing compared to a defense which lost nine starters from an attacking and aggressive group which yielded 16 points per outings.
In spite of the heavy losses, Rimpf is upbeat about the 11 defenders he will send out each Friday night.
“We lost a lot of experience on defense, but, actually, we have a lot of guys that may be more athletic and look better on the field than the ones we lost, as hard as that is to say, “he said. “They just have to come around on defense. We’re low on experience. Obviously, these scrimmages, practices and non-region games will go a long way toward helping them gain experience and, they are going to get it quickly.”
Camden will continue to line up in a 4-3 defensive package with senior Jon Copley (6-0, 222) being at one end after a junior season in which he rang up 44 tackles with teams-bests in sacks (4.5) and quarterback pressures (20). Across the way, at the other end, junior Jaxon Hembree (6-0, 214) and sophomore Jonathan Chavis (6-1, 236) have enjoyed a spirited competition for the other starting slot. Along the interior, senior Alex Thrash (5-11, 320) is back at tackle while sophomore Dontrell Stradford (5-11, 290) and junior Shaki Salmond (5-8, 256) are battling for the nose guard post. Several starters and backups along the offensive line will also be used to provide depth on the defensive front.
After rotating four seniors at linebacker last fall, that unit has undergone a complete facelift. Junior Silias Coleman (6-1, 220) will call the defensive signals as middle linebacker. On his flank will be junior Marcellus Juggins (6-0, 186) and senior Darrius Peebles (6-0, 210). Jaheim Williams will back up Peebles while senior Tyrnlon Gregory (5-9, 192) is backing up both Coleman and Juggins for a unit which has a combined 12 varity tackles with each of those belonging to Peebles.
The secondary will be anchored by a pair of safeties. Joseph Byrnes, a 6-foot, 165-pounder who rang up 64 tackles in four starts after being called up from jayvee last season, is an athlete whose talents will be used on offense, as well, this season. Classmate James Crim (5-10, 176) was off to a strong start last fall only to have an early season arm injury put him on the shelf after he made six stops. Goodwin will back up that pair.
Senior Shelah Lee (5-7, 160) will be at one corner after posting 14 tackles last year. He will also back up at safety. Lee’s younger cousin, Jaden Lee, a 5-8, 156-pound junior, will man the other corner. Backing the Lees up are senior Matt Cassidy (5-11, 145) and junior Zyreek Fowler (5-11, 128).
“We have some holes and inexperience on defense,” Rimpf said. “Hopefully, the areas where we have experience will be able to help those guys along.”
For the past two years, Bennett Caldwell was Camden’s specialist. He booted four field goals and was 52-of-56 on PATs a year ago. In his place is newcomer Thomas Burkott, a 5-9, 170-pounder who handled the kicking chores for the junior varsity as a sophomore.
Having come agonizingly close to winning the 4-AAA championship and then, three weeks later, losing in the Upper State semifinals, left a bad taste in Camden’s mouth. It has also served as a rallying cry for the 2019 Bulldogs.
Rimpf said he hopes this team will rectify both situations and get over the proverbial hump this time around.
“Our goals last year were to be county champion, which we accomplished, to be region champions, to be Upper State champions and then, be state champion. Our goals are really the same this year,” he said.
“I think that most of the guys who are on varsity now dressed for the Chester game last year. That was the region championship game, at the time. We were both ranked in the top three in the state. We went into overtime with them and, as it turned out, that was the closest game they played all year and the closest they came to losing.
“At the end of the season, our guys kind of looked at that and realized that we were right there. We were that close to beating Chester. I think they realized how close we are. We just have to realize how tight that window is and the little things that go into winning a game like that. We ended up one yard short, got to overtime and went for two and didn’t get it against Chester.
“Being that close has helped us to have a lot of confidence during the offseason. It also helped us to work harder knowing that the state champion is in our region and that we’re going to play them this year at Zemp Stadium (on Oct. 18.) If that’s the best that the state has to offer, we’re going to get a really good gauge as to how good we are that night.”