FLOWERY BRANCH — When Tommy Jones accepted the job at Cherokee Bluff almost two years ago, he knew the task of building a program from scratch was not going to be a bed roses.
And since that first day, he's found out building a football that sustains success requires a tremendous work ethic by everyone involved.
“We are creating a family atmosphere here,” he said. “We want our guys to care for each other and work hard for each other. Those are the things that we want to be the foundation of our program – success has to be earned. We understand it’s a process and there’s not a magic pill.”
Although the building process continues into Year 2, the Bears are beginning to shake the newness as they enter the 2019 season, knowing more about themselves than they did last year. In a way, they’re seasoned.
“We recognized last year that we were extraordinarily young,” Jones said. “I’m not sure there’s any way to prepare a built-from-scratch situation. There are a lot of coaches that I leaned on that had done the same thing themselves. You know, every situation is unique and different. The most rewarding part of the job is to watch kids grow and develop along the journey.”
The Bears will be young again this season, with the majority of their returning starters being sophomores and juniors, with the exception of a couple of seniors.
They'll look to Jaylon Justice to be a leader this season. The junior offensive and defensive specialist will be a major player in the Bears’ success this season.
“Jaylon is a really good basketball and football player – just an athlete,” he said. “He’s also an exceptional young man with a great work ethic. We’re counting on him a ton to continue to progress and make plays this year. He’s just an ultra-reliable young man. We feel very comfortable when he’s in the game.”
Justice led the team in receptions in 2018. He’ll be expected to improve those numbers in Jones’ multiple I formation offense this season. He’ll also be a vital part of the Bear defensive secondary.
Justice will be joined by Jamir Tolbert, Jacob Carlson and John Bazemore in the receiving corp.
Jones is satisfied with the continued improvement of the slot/wide receiver posts and considers it a strength of the offense.
“I’m excited to see how much these guys have improved over the summer,” he said. “Our wide receiver corp had some success last year and they’re all back.”
The question mark, however, is at quarterback. That’s one of three spots that graduated last season. Connor Boyd guided the offense in 2018, now it’s Mason Thomas’ turn to take the reins.
“Any time you start a new quarterback, that’s always a question mark,” Jones said. "But we’re excited about Mason. He’s had a good offseason and is improving daily.”
To help with the quarterback growing pains will be a steady rotation of running backs and fullbacks. Jones has four solid guys returning at running back and three improved fullbacks.
Juniors Charles Tolbert and Harrison Carter return in a starting role at running back. Sam Stribling and Micah Hunter will rotate in and out as well. Eli Little, Brayden Nance and Nick Richardson will share the fullback duties.
“Charles and Harrison both played significantly as sophomores and, in spurts, they showed a lot of potential last season,” Jones said. “They’ve shown over the summer that they’re ready to take the next step.”
We are excited about the progress of our running backs and fullbacks. We feel like we have a four-man rotation at running back and three talented guys at fullback. The hope is that we can have a lot of guys rotating through there, staying fresh and playing their tails off.”
It’s tough to have an offense without a steady foundation of linemen, and that’s exactly what the Bears have returning this season with senior Daniel Bescher and sophomores Mateo Guevara, Cason Moore and Keller Atkinson.
Jones said he is pleased with the development of the O-line.
“A lot of our success will be right along our front,” he said. “They’re development in the offseason and throughout the summer has been vital for us to be able to take the next step offensively. We’re going to be better upfront this year.”
On defense, the defensive line still is a work in progress. Working out of a 50-base defense means Jones and his staff have to work overtime to solidify a five-man starting line by Game 1.
Myka Sims and Dakota Collins will see a lot of time on the D-line, according to Jones.
“We have a handful of question marks upfront,” he said. “Most of the guys that we have will probably rotate through. Sims has been making progress over the summer. He has a big frame and looks like he has the potential to help us. Dakota has also been working hard. It’s a work in progress right now.”
The Bears return the most starters at linebacker and in the secondary and all of them are pretty smart. Jones says his linebackers have over a 4.0 GPA.
“You don’t see that often in high school football,” he said. “They are reliable on the field and a joy to coach. It also helps when you have some smart guys in those spots.”
Junior linebacker Garrett Davis returns in good health this season. He had a season-ending injury in 2018 against Johnson. At the time of his exit from the game, Davis had 20 tackles against the Knights.
“Garrett was playing exceptional when that happened,” Jones said. “He is our bell cow on defense and is a very smart and a physical player. It’s good to have him healthy.”
Also back at linebacker are Nance, Little, Gohman.
Justice and Carlson will hunker down in the secondary and Jamir Tolbert, McCudo and Hunter will rotate in at corner.
“We’re excited about the development, progress and improvement that we’ve seen in the defense,” Jones said. “Just over the course of the last year, guys are working hard, more than just working hard, they’re learning and starting to figure things out. It’ll be interesting to see how that improvement pans out this season.”
The season brings a steady path of twists and turns. In Region 7-3A, they’ll face GAC, Dawson County, North Hall, an improved Fannin County team and unknowns at Lumpkin County and East Hall, both schools have new coaches.
Jones, however, isn’t spending a whole lot of time dwelling on the competition but, at the same time, knows exactly what to expect.
“Right now, our focus is just on us getting better and trying to improve,” he said. “Our region is definitely a gauntlet. When you talk about GAC, Dawson and North Hall, all three are legitimate second and third round teams from last year. I’m sure those guys will continue to get better. But, we’ve got to be able to block out all the noise and worry about us. At the end of the day, it’s just about being the best version of us that we can be right now in terms of our program.”