What’s there to do for an encore?
For Jones County, the start of the journey officially arrives, even in the midst of COVID-19.
The Greyhounds are coming off of a run to the GHSA Class 5A semifinals in the first year of head coach Mike Chastain’s tenure in Gray. They’ll now look to match, if not exceed last year’s 12-2 record.
JCHS has the benefit of a full season and change with a majority of the current coaching staff. While this time a year ago was spent by players getting a grasp for new schemes, that learning curve is flattened due to a year of experience.
“This time last year, it was tough because everyone was coming in new and installing everything,” Jones County head coach Mike Chastain said. “This year, having everyone here for a year, it’s made everything a lot better.”
That experience, that of soaking up what the Greyhounds want to do on offense, will now be put into use in an offense that faces the task of replacing quarterback Hunter Costlow. As a senior, he passed for 3,000 yards, threw for 29 touchdowns and was intercepted four times. In fact, all but 23 of Jones County’s passing attempts last year were by Costlow.
It goes without saying that whoever his replacement is will be a major component of an offense that averaged 383 yards per game.
The new signal-caller for the Greyhounds will have a strong supporting cast to lean on. It starts in the offensive backfield, where Andrew Carner, who rushed for 1,133 yards and nine touchdowns last season is back.
Despite a good chunk of last year’s top receiving talent having graduated, there’s plenty of talent ready to step up. Three of last year’s top four receivers – notably Jontavis Robertson, who caught more than 1,100 yards worth of passes – have graduated along with John Walton and Caden Mutchler.
The blow of the graduation of so much talent is lessened to a degree by the return of Maleek Wooten. A preseason first Class 5A all-state selection by the AJC, he was second on the team last year in receiving yards with 952, and his 12 receiving touchdowns led the team.
“Having him there, that helps a lot,” Chastain said. “He is a guy that you feel like you can get the ball to and make plays.”
That sets the stage for a good stock of receivers that Chastain says are eager to step up. Keegan Baxter, who had 172 receiving yards, is among them along with Tucker Mix, Ed Chester, Jaylon Clark, Kameron Spencer and Zion Ragins. Austin Barnes is also expected to see action.
“We’ve got some guys that have had some limited roles,” Chastain said. “Now they’re eager to step up and do some things to help us.”
A strong core is primed to go up front on the offensive line to provide pass protection and open running lanes. Joe Hill is penciled in to start at left tackle, Matt Adams at left guard, Grayson Dugger at center, Brady Smith at right guard and a combo of Cameron Leach and Denim Gray at right tackle.
The good news for the Greyhounds on defense? Three of last year’s top tacklers return, not to mention three out of four starting linebackers and three of four starters in the defensive secondary. They’ll look to follow up on a year ago in which the unit registered 12.5 sacks and 15 interceptions.
It’s another story in the trenches with just one returning starter. That said, there is no shortage of options of which the Greyhounds defensive coaching staff can utilize. Among those expected to step up are Adam Sapp, Zyrique Early, Kaleb Wiggins, Omarion Tucker and Jamari Parker.
In some programs, having more players than starting positions could cause heartburn. The Greyhounds, however, welcome it.
“We like our young guys. We really feel like they’ll do a good job for us this year,” Chastain said. “We feel like we have seven of eight defensive linemen that can roll out there and play a lot in the first few games. We believe in playing lots of guys, we want to get a lot of guys out there on the field. We’re excited to see what they can do.”
As much as the bulk of the lineup up front defensively is unproven, it’s the opposite in the defensive back group. Jitavius Whipple and Deon Richardson, who combined for eight interceptions last year, will be back as part of a group ready to once again set on shutting down opposing passing attacks.
“When you have competition and people that can play behind you, it makes you a lot better in practice,” Chastain said.
Now, after an offseason with COVID-19 hanging over it, the season has nearly arrived for football in Jones County.