WATER VALLEY – With the season-opening Railroad Classic just over a week away, the Water Valley Blue Devils are busy preparing for the anticipated season. This year marks Head Coach Brad Embry’s second year, and he will field seasoned veterans while compensating for the loss of several key players on last year’s squad.
The Water Valley Blue Devils will be led under center by senior Josh Johnson heading into the 2009 season. Johnson, who replaced the now departed Leo Daniels early during 2008, has the physical tools to run what Head Coach Brad Embry hopes to be a high powered offense, but his decision wavered at times in his rookie campaign. In year two of Embry’s campaign, the newness of the Blue Devil offense should be gone, although Water Valley will have more of a spread look at times this season.
“We have more of an idea of what to do and how to do it with the offense this year and we should be pretty good,” said Johnson. “The shotgun will be different, but we’ll be able to do more things out of it and spread the ball.”
If Johnson stays healthy and continues his progression, the two-sport star could be set for a big year. Junior Matt Dalton will back up Johnson, but will most likely have to wait until 2010 to see action outside of mop up duty.
The spread may come and go, but the Water Valley Blue Devils will always look to run the ball. Luckily enough for Embry and the rest of the Blue Devil staff, Water Valley has one of the most talented backfields in 3A, featuring four quality ball carriers. The quartet of backfield stars is led by senior D.C. Logan, who rushed for nearly 1,400 yards in 2008, along with 15 touchdowns. With Logan likely seeing more time on the defensive side of the ball this season, don’t be surprised if more carries are delegated to senior Torrey Horton, junior Zenty Allen, and sophomore Eric Buckley.
“D.C. (Logan), Zenty (Allen), Torrey (Horton), and Eric (Buckley) are four very good running backs,” said Embry. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world in those guys.”
If the Blue Devil offensive line provides the holes, there is no doubt that these four backs know what to do with the ball. The Water Valley offense will most likely go as far as these four can take them, and if the Blue Devil backs live up to the hype, that could be very far.
The biggest question mark for the Blue Devil offense in 2009 could very well be the receivers. With the aforementioned Daniels no longer in the Blue Devil program, sophomore Chris Conard will have to carry a massive load in the newly implemented spread offense.
“We’ve got a lot of really young guys at receiver, Chris Conard is our veteran and he’s a tenth grader,” said a laughing Embry. “They’ve (Receivers) got a lot of ability, but there is a big difference in a senior with a lot of ability and a ninth or tenth grader with a lot of ability. I’m excited about them, but we have a learning curve that we have to get over in a hurry.”
Sophomore Desmond Hervey is a potential candidate for Water Valley’s number two receiver, while the Blue Devil staff may opt to give Logan a shot on the offensive perimeter as well.
With the graduation of Tyler Jones, J.J. Woodard, and Ryan Bain, offensive line coach Clint Faust certainly has a task on his hands heading into the 2009 season.
“It’s (Offensive Line) a work in progress,” said Faust. “I don’t want to say we have a difficult offensive scheme, but it’s not your typical offensive scheme, its more complex. It puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line to get their assignments and we have to rep these guys every single day.”
Looking to pave the way for a stable of Blue Devil running backs will be seniors Zack Caulder and Tommy Lipscomb at right tackle and center respectively. Junior Hunter Edwards is penciled in at left guard, while John Michael Grimmett is leading the chase for the starting left tackle job.
The surprise of the offensive line could be freshman, Justin McCammon, who has drawn rave review from Faust, as well as Logan. The confidence is there for this group, but only time will tell if they will grow up in time for a run at the division title.
The loss of team leader J.J. Woodard, along with key contributors Marrico Hayes, Xavier Benson, and Malcolm Horton has left the defensive line in a similar state as their offensive counter parts. Looking to fill the voids and anchor the Water Valley defense will be returning starters Zack Caulder and Barrett Larson, while junior Danny Smith and senior Josh Terrell are also slated for starting jobs.
“Barrett Larson and (Zack) Caulder are in their second year in the system and they know what we’re trying to get done and a lot of the young guys are improving,” said defensive line coach Bryant Mix. “We’re doing a good job now, but we’ve got a long way to go. It’s hard to replace J.J. Woodard.”
In an offensively explosive division, it’s pivotal for this talented, yet inexperienced defensive line to match the level of play exhibited by their predecessors.
Led by junior J.D. Fondon, Water Valley’s group of linebackers is rock solid, with the potential to become a team strength. Coupled with Fondon’s instincts and leadership, sophomores Keldrick Hooper and C.J. Jackson provide an injection of speed and athleticism that could make this trio one of the most fearsome units in the division.
“Even though we’re young at linebacker, I think we’re more tenacious and we have a higher motor,” said defensive coordinator Richard Russo. “They (Hooper and Jackson) just have to get some game experience under their belt. They grew up last year on scout team and JV and they’re progressing great.”
With abundant talent, there is no group with a higher ceiling than the Blue Devil secondary. D.C. Logan will partner Chris Conrad at cornerback, while Eric Buckley and Tommy St. Romain will look to provide big plays and bigger hits at the safety spots. While 2008 was a successful season for this bunch, the Blue Devil defense will need the secondary to provide much more consistency in pass coverage, an area where youthful mistakes plagued Water Valley.
“I think they (Secondary) got better every game last year and they’re getting better every practice,” said safeties coach Shane Brown. “Tommy St. Romain is a head hunter and Eric Buckley is too. They’re getting bigger, faster, and stronger. D.C. (Logan) is a shutdown corner and Chris (Conard) has been a shutdown guy.”
Although the Blue Devil secondary is headlined by an impressive group of starters, Russo believes that an unheralded amount of depth could be key for Water Valley.
“We’ve got some quality depth is Desmond Hervey and Matt Dalton,” said Russo. “I’m so confident in them (Secondary) that I’ve put in two different coverages and they’ve picked it up in fall camp and I’m very excited about it.”