Hounds seeking experience as new season begins
Buckle those chinstraps and hang on tight – it’s liable to be a bumpy ride for the
Greyhounds, at least in the
early weeks of the 2018 season.
After going a school best 11-2 and making it to the state quarterfinals last season, Jones County finds itself in something of a rebuilding mode this year.
But coach Justin Rogers, beginning his fifth season in Gray, insists the talent level remains high and his team has a chance to be very good – eventually.
“The biggest thing starting the season is to realize we’re a work in progress,” Rogers said. “Every year you hope to get better as you go along, and that’s what we’ve done. But I think that will be more transparent to people watching this year.
“We’ve got a ton of first-year starters. There’s some really good players in the bunch, but it is different going from playing on Thursday afternoons to Friday nights with all of Jones County watching you.
“We’ve got a great group of kids who have worked so hard all spring and summer to get ready. We feel we’ll be fine, have a very talented team,” he added. “But they are young and inexperienced, and we’ve got to grow up with them.”
The Greyhounds get something of a break by beginning with three non-region games, one more than the last two years after Hampton dropped down a classification and moved out of Region 4-5A.
“That helps in that the first three don’t count against you as far as season goals of competing for a region title and making it into the playoffs,” Rogers said. “You still want to win, but it doesn’t wreck your season to lose a non-region game.
“The bad thing is that all of the nonregion games are in August. Counting our preseason game, we play four games in August. That’s crazy. Wish we weren’t starting so fast and furious, that we had an open week in there somewhere. But that’s the way the other schools in the region (all from Henry County) wanted it.”
Jones County opens on the road this Thursday night with a game against Macon’s Howard High School at the Ed DeFore Complex adjacent to Westside High School.
The home opener Aug. 24 is against Baldwin, then comes a trip to Warner Robins to face Class 6A power Northside in McConnell-Talbert Stadium on Aug. 31.
Region play begins the next week with a home game against Union Grove on Sept. 7, followed by a visit to Woodland-Stockbridge on Sept. 14, meaning the Greyhounds open with games six consecutive weeks before getting their first break with an open week on Sept. 21.
Two more region games follow, at Locust Grove on Sept. 28 and home against Dutchtown on Oct. 5. After another open week, the regular season winds up with region games at home Oct. 19 against Eagle’s Landing, at Ola on Oct. 26 and home again against Stockbridge on Nov. 2.
“I’d rather have one of the open weeks earlier, to have a chance to make adjustments after seeing how you do the first couple of games, and then the second a little later, to have a chance to rest and heal before beginning the playoffs,” Rogers said. “But we’ll just have to make do with what we have.”
The coach said Stockbridge, which won its fourth region title in a row last season, remains the team to beat in 4-5A, though the Tigers lost a pile of starters off of last year’s championship squad.
“Dutchtown and Locust Grove should also be right up there,” Rogers said. “Dutchtown has a lot of guys back, including an experienced quarterback. And Locust Grove, which was very young last season, only lost three starters. Woodland and Ola will also be tough.”
Jones County’s rebuild this season begins on offense, where junior Hunter Costlow takes over at quarterback and senior Semaj Ingram at running back.
Costlow got a head start on his ascension when he had to take over as quarterback for the final two games in the playoffs last season after starter Teldrick Ross fractured his ankle late in the opening victory over Griffin.
Costlow played well in a 26-21 victory over Wayne County in the second round, but his inexperience showed more in a 26-21 loss at Carver-Atlanta in the quarterfinals.
Ingram also got more playing time late last season after starting running back Drake Bolus sprained his ankle early in the win at Wayne County.
“They are both talented guys; they just need more experience as the starter,” Rogers said.
“Ingram has really had a good offseason. He might not have the breakaway speed to go 80 yards the way Bolus and Ross did, but he runs with violence. One guy is not going to bring him down.
“Costlow played well in the two playoff games. He has a quick release and good arm. We just have to let him get into his own rhythm and get to where he is making good decisions consistently. We put a lot of responsibility on our quarterback to get us in the right play, and the only way you learn that is through experience.”
Only two starters return on the offensive line – senior left tackle Trey Bonner and junior center Rhett Huckeba – but Rogers is convinced it will be a strength for the Greyhounds.
“We’ve got Bonner and (junior guard) Conner Griffin, who transferred from Houston County, on the left side. They’re really good.
“Huckeba is settled at center after playing all over for us last year. We’ve got Davien Shinholster taking over at right guard and Jalen Wilson (both seniors) at right tackle, with two sophomores who are going to be really good right behind them – Brady Smith and Matthew Adams,” Rogers said.
Wide receiver will be another strength for the Greyhounds.
“We’ve got a lot of speed and a lot of depth there,” said the coach.
The starting four now are juniors Jontavias Robertson, John Walton and Caden Mutchelor, and sophomore Maleek Wooten. Just behind are seniors Nolan Barker, Tre McCoy and Cameron Rockmore, and junior Evan Meeks.
“We’ll be rotating them all in and out to keep fresh legs in the game, and Rockmore and Robertson will also play on defense some,” Rogers said.
Senior Ethan Harrison will be the starter at fullback, and junior Matthew Sheffield, who will start at linebacker, will get some carries at running back to spell Ingram.
Rogers also said the Greyhounds will use some two-back sets this season, usually bringing a receiver such as Wooten or Robertson into the backfield with Ingram.
The strength will be up front, which is also where the Greyhounds are most experienced.
“Our defensive line is sporty. They have a chance to be really, really good. They are definitely the strength of the offense, and really the strength of the entire team,” Rogers said.
“Some others may have a player or two on the defensive line better than us, but as a starting unit, I don’t think anyone we play will be better.”
The group is led by senior defensive end Ja’Darien Boykin, a preseason all-state player who is being recruited by a number of NCAA Division I schools.
“He is just so explosive, makes a lot of plays in the backfield. He leads the way in helping us keep pressure on other teams.”
Junior Nathan Seiy will start at the other end, with fellow junior Josh Burney also seeing plenty of action.
Inside, Jones County has returning starters Garrett Baughman, a junior, and D.J. Stewart, a senior, and junior Zavan Hurt will be in the rotation with them.
“Hurt is the guy no one knows about right now, but they will know him pretty soon. He’s had an unbelievable offseason and we expect him to have a great season,” Rogers said.
Linebacker is the question position on defense entering the season, the coach said.
“They’re all brand new. We graduated a really good group of linebackers, so replacing them is the hardest thing we have to do. We’ve got some good guys working hard there, and we think they can be good. But they need that game experience, so it is an area where we have to grow up on the job.”
Senior Adam Mills is expected to start at one inside linebacker spot, and sophomores Deon Richardson and Charles Gooden will share the other.
Starters at outside linebacker will be Sheffield and fellow junior Britton Jones. Sophomore Javorious Venerable and senior Alvonte Cornelius will also be in the rotation.
Senior Jake Lanford returns at safety, but he is recovering from a knee injury and may miss the first few games. Cornelius will likely start in his place until Lanford is ready.
At cornerback, senior Jordan Davis will start on one side, and the Greyhounds are also waiting on an injured starter to return on the other, senior Jamal Williams. Until then, junior Dominic Bass, Rockmore and Robertson will rotate in to fill the spot.
Senior Colby Gordon returns to give the Greyhounds a strong punter, but the rest of the kicking game is unsettled.
“We’ve had the luxury of having really good kickers since I’ve been here, Wade Carr and then Josh Skinner. But we didn’t have anyone ready to step in this season the way we did with Josh taking over for Wade, and we’re still struggling some,” Rogers said.
Jamir Stewart, a senior who is goal-keeper on the soccer team, was recruited and looked good in the spring, but he has been banged up in the preseason. That has thrust freshman Evan West, another soccer player, into the role.
“He’s been doing pretty good, but he’s so small that he doesn’t have a lot of strength. I think if we can get our snapping and holding worked out, he can be pretty accurate on extra points. But I don’t know about field goals.”
Top kick return men are Robertson and Wooten.