TIFTON — Football season is on the horizon in Tifton.
The Tift County Blue Devils have the annual Soap Bowl slated for Friday. They go to Lee County next week for their official scrimmage and, then, sooner than the blink of an eye, the regular season begins Aug. 23 with a home game against Warner Robins.
Tift, a quarterfinalist for the second straight year in 2018, remains in Region 1-AAAAAAA, arguably the toughest in the state. The Devils graduated many seniors this spring, 11 of whom inked to play football on National Signing Day and with even more committing to play the sport at the next level later. The list of seniors included the squad’s starting quarterback, running back, kicker, top two leading receivers and top four tacklers.
All the graduations mean big shoes are out there to be filled, but head coach Ashley Anders is not upset.
“This group has leadership, experience,” he said.
Tift’s power will start up front on both sides of the football. “Offensive line and defensive line will be the strength,” said Anders.
Byronn Williams, Jalon Miller, Charles King and Tyre West started last year on the defensive line. Half the Southeastern Conference are making offers to West, who is only a sophomore and the others are drawing their share of attention, too.
On the offensive side are players such as Boone Utley, Tye Conner, Archer Hathaway, Tyler Evans, Jacob Mullis and Christian Holloway. Holloway, listed as 250 pounds, is the small man of that lineup.
For the second straight year, Tift County has a quarterback battle on its hands going into the opening game. Weston Clamp and Jacob Beach both played for the locals a year ago and their corps was bolstered during the offseason when Joe Almond transferred in from Lowndes. Almond, too, has starting experience.
Running back duties will likely be spread out. Walter Jackson was moved over from linebacker and thus far has impressed the coaching staff. Kadarius McCormick had carries in the spring. Younger backs are Chrishon Stephens and Zach Carter.
Anders admitted there is not as much depth at wide receiver this season, but is returning Jeremiah McKinnon to the position. Ty Hall, Bryce Stewart and Qa Clines will help. Cade Anders and Ben Brock slot as tight end-types. The two of them will also play some on defense.
J.D. Bengston and Danny Whitehead anchor the linebackers. In the secondary, the Blue Devils have Dashawn Hurley, Wendell McClain, Stephen Thomas, Jay Neloms, Jamaal Davenport, Jeffery Butler and transfer Willie Brown.
Pedro Mendoza handled kicking duties during Tift’s spring game with Fitzgerald. Colby Gann returns to punt.
The Blue Devils have two defending state champions on their schedule: Lee County and Bainbridge. They will face the former in a scrimmage Aug. 15. Bainbridge, whom Tift defeated 31-14 on the road a season ago, won eight of its final nine games (seven in a row) before upsetting Warner Robins in the Class AAAAA finals.
Besides the champions, Colquitt County and Warner Robins were runners-up. Tift will face both this year. All in all, nine of their opponents went to state. Lowndes was a semifinalist, Valdosta made the quarterfinalist and Parkview advanced to the second round.
Assistant Tommy Flowers, speaking on behalf of the team at Kick-Off to Men’s Health, said it is “very challenging and rewarding to be back” with this caliber of opponents. As for the region, he felt “Like we’re the dark horse.”
The Blue Devils were the dark horse in the region in 2018. They finished as the fourth seed in Region 1 and made the state playoffs through the power ratings. Energized by their fate, the Devils destroyed Roswell by a 42-7 score in the first round. The next week, they fought off a 14-0 deficit and held on to beat East Coweta, 24-17.
Colquitt County is expected to be strong as always in 1-AAAAAAA,. The Packers are getting used to life under a new head coach, Justin Rogers, after Rush Propst was relieved of the position earlier this year.
Lowndes graduated main running back Travis Tisdale, but have an experienced quarterback returning in Jacurri Brown.
Camden County defeated Tift for the third seed in the state tournament from the region, They also return their top quarterback in Logan Watson.
Tift County is the second of a series of five football previews which will run in The Gazette in August. Other schools to be previewed are Irwin County, Fitzgerald and Turner County. Tiftarea Academy was previewed last Friday.