Coming off an NJCAA national championship game appearance in 2013, the GMC Bulldogs struggled early in 2014, losing their first two games before finishing 7-4 and not receiving an invitation to postseason play.
Head coach Bert Williams and his staff dealt with a myriad new players and faces, an expected hurdle in the junior college ranks where players spend only two years in the program.
“We lost a ton of players from the ’13 team where we played in the championship game,” Williams said. “It was kind of a starting from scratch last year, and we played a very challenging schedule, so it took awhile for us to get our feet up under us and play like we were capable of.”
Approaching this season, GMC lost 19 players who moved to four-year programs, including two players heading to the SEC: defensive end Devante Covington, who transferred to South Carolina, and Jovon Robinson, who transferred to Auburnn
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Robinson was named the 2013 NJCAA national player of the year after rushing for 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns, while finishing his two-year run at GMC with 3,198 yards and 43 touchdowns.
Despite losing the program’s star player, Williams believes his team will recover because of two promising sophomore running backs. The transition this year won’t be as strenuous as last year’s because of more experience on the offensive side of the ball.
While GMC possesses little experience at wide receiver and tight end, Williams relishes in the familiarity on the offensive line.
“We’ve got a little bit more experience returning on the offense in that we have two running backs (who) know what it takes, got a quarterback who played really well for us last year,” Williams said. “The good news I think for me is that we have an experienced and talented offensive line coming back, and we won’t be ringing behind the ears, so to speak, on that bunch.”
The players anchoring the line will be tackle Akeem Cooperwood and guard Omar Staley, both of whom were named to the JC Gridiron Preseason Watch List. Another player to keep an eye on will be Charles Brenner.
“(He) can play center or guard for us. He’s really had a good offseason for us,” Williams said. “We’ve been pleased with the progress he has made.”
The sophomore duo of Jordan Brown and Tresvon Coakley in the backfield will attempt to emulate the play of Robinson. Last year, Brown rushed for 525 yards and five touchdowns on 7.3 yards per carry while Coakley registered 286 yards and six touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry.
GMC also returns its starting quarterback from last year, Tyler Herman, who threw for 2,183 yards with 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2014.
“We’ve got some good young quarterbacks, but (Herman) would be a hard guy to beat out,” Williams said.
But he’s the only player on the roster who should feel comfortable as a starter. Williams likes the competition throughout the team, especially at wide receiver and linebacker this year because of a strong group of freshman talent at the positions.
“We kind of make that clear to them that every day’s an opportunity to learn about being a better player, earn your playing time and earn a start,” Williams said. “Every day’s a chance to learn and earn, and you better take advantage of it, or you’ll get passed by.”
The defense is full of youth. The only linebacker with experience on the roster is Brenton Wimberly, a player Williams believes will improve this year. On the defensive line, Lorenzo McWilliams -- a walk-on -- and Michael Parrish continue to show flashes and improve.
Williams called the competition on the defensive line and at linebacker “a battle.”
“I think the biggest thing is learning how to work day in day out,” Williams said of the road to returning to a title game. “Just learning how to work on a regular basis, having confidence in each other that when we get out there we’ll get the job done on the field.”
With a young team again, beginning the season strong would do wonders for the team’s confidence. GMC kicked off its season Saturday, and with an easier road to travel in the first few weeks -- the team’s first two game are at home -- Williams believes his team can make noise.
“We certainly have the ability to be very good this year,” Williams said. “But the biggest challenge is always getting everybody on the same page and knowing what to do in offense, defense, and special teams and executing it against a very high level of talent.”