JEFFERSON — Gene Cathcart doesn’t like to reminisce about the 2018 season, and who would?
But he’s now reaping the benefits of that season, where he lost more than 40 percent of his starting lineup.
Why? There’s only one answer: depth. And throw in the COVID-19 shutdown of all high school athletic activities, it makes that season seem like a Godsend now.
“So many players played two years ago when ordinarily, in a program like Jefferson, they would not have had the opportunity,” Cathcart said. “The injuries allowed them to play. So, we’ve got guys, combined with the successful year last year, that have a lot of time on the field.”
The depth, for sure, has the Dragons, who finished 10-2 with a Class 3A quarterfinal playoff appearance, way ahead of schedule in terms of experience.
Sure, there will be issues for the Dragons, like replacing team captains Colby Clark at quarterback or Kade McNally in the backfield, but with 16 starters returning, the Dragons are in good shape.
“Obviously, when you’re in a program like Jefferson, you’re always going to graduate really fine players,” he said. “We certainly know they’re going to do good things at the next level, but we’re fortunate to have a lot of really good talent returning.”
The Dragons return seven starters to Cathcart’s spread-option offense, including Power 5 dynamic do-it-all athlete junior Malaki Starks, who could see time at quarterback. Also vying for that spot will be senior Carter Stephenson, who was 7-1 as a starter, playing for an injured Clark, in 2018. Juniors Max Aldridge and Mikey Sheehan are prospects as well at quarterback.
“We’re going to let it play itself out,” he said. “We want to give Malaki a chance to touch it as much as he can. And Carter did a great job leading us two years ago. We’ll see how it shakes out in practice. We think those four can win ballgames for us.”
The Dragons have a few different options at running back in speedsters junior Jordan Perry and senior Kolton Jones. Senior Paxton Corkery returns at fullback as well as junior Reese Johnson
Junior Dawson Crowley is back at wide receiver, and Colton Steele and senior Colton Dufresne along with junior Dylan Ryoul, return as starters on the offensive line.
Defensively, Jefferson returns their entire secondary as well as a strong linebacker roster.
Senior Rem Maxwell, last year’s leading tackler, is back, Corkery will split time at defensive end and linebacker, junior Kaden Bailey, Perry, and juniors Spencer Nesse and Austin Redmon along with sophomore Isaiah Copeland will also see time at the second level.
“We’ve got a good athletic linebacker group returning,” Cathcart said. “That’s definitely a strength right now.”
The secondary returns all six, which as Cathcart says, is a rarity in football.
Seniors Kam Robinson and junior Nick Evans return at cornerback. Senior Hunter Blayton, Starks and Carter will play the safety spots. Sophomore Elijah Dewitt also will see some time.
As far as to question marks on defense, Cathcart points to the defensive line. He’s not a fan of playing lineman both ways but will most likely have to in 2020.
“We think it’s tough to play our kids both ways on the line of scrimmage,” he said. “We’re going to try to minimize that as much as possible.
Senior Carson Woodward will be joined by senior Jaheim Hardy. Dufresne and Steele will rotate as well.
When the GHSA realigned its classification in February, Jefferson moved out of Class 3A to 4A.
It also didn’t get any easier for the Dragons in the new Region 8-4A, which houses annual contenders Flowery Branch, North Oconee and Madison County, along with Chestatee and East Hall.
‘I think we left an outstanding region and got into an extremely tough region, also,” Cathcart said. “Every team in our region is so well-coached. It’s going to be a challenge every week. There’s not an easy at-bat in our region.”