The Thomson football team is full of fresh faces as it gets set to begin the 2011 football season.
The Bulldogs brought in coach Milan Turner and a largely new staff, which will lead a team with just six or seven returning starters.
Even The Brickyard will look markedly different from last year, with new bricks, bleachers, concession stands, and an improved scoreboard with video capabilities.
It's never easy to get 11 players to learn the nuances of a brand new offensive and defensive system, and some of the deficiencies showed in Thomson's scrimmage against Lincoln County two weeks ago, which the Bulldogs won 7-3. But after watching the tapes, Turner said he was pleased with the team's effort and he has faith in the talent of his players.
"I think everything that we need to do is definitely fixable," said the former coach at Emanuel County Institute in Twin City, Ga.
Despite all of the changes, a crucial part of Thomson's offense will be the play of one of its familiar faces, Josh Jones.
Turner said the 5'11, 160-lb. quarterback has already proved himself to be one of the team's leaders in practice.
In his first game running the flex offense, Jones didn't do a lot against Lincoln County until the final, game-winning drive.
But Turner said he was impressed with the play of his senior quarterback, particularly his ability to extend the play with his legs when he was pressured by the pass rush.
"We're counting on him to make plays for us and do a lot of good things for us," Turner said. Jones will have plenty of targets this fall, starting with senior receiver Jalen Tucker.
Fellow senior Tavis Walton and junior Jordan Davis figure to play big roles in the passing game too, and Jones said the team will also be seeking some contributions from sophomore receivers Ryan Kelly and Felton Hatcher.
While the quarterback position seems to be decided, the picture at running back is less clear. Seven different running backs got at least one carry against Lincoln County, and Turner said that mighty not change much during the regular season.
Seniors Chris Jordan and Billy Felts should get a good chunk of carries, along with junior Torrie Battle. Turner said he expects his offense to be run similar to the way it was in the scrimmage, when the Bulldogs ran 28 pass plays and 24 running plays.
"That's our goal," he said. "We want to be balanced, be able to mix it up and keep people off balance." Thomson's strength, at least early in the season, might be its defense.
Even though it brings back just two returning starters, Turner said the group led by defensive tackle Garrison Kendrick and strong safety Kentrell Reynolds has been working hard in the practices leading up to the season opener.
"(Coach Turner) is running us pretty hard," said Kendrick, a senior who is joined on the line this season by 6-foot-4-inch, 290-lb. Division I recruit John Atkins. "We're getting way better in shape than we were last year." The defense posted three shutouts last season, and Kendrick and Atkins are both optimistic that they'll have similar success in the upcoming season.
Turner was reluctant to talk about where his team might be relative to its opponents, saying he wouldn't have a good answer for that until about the 10th week of the season.
Instead, he turned the conversation to his defense's need to work on technique and pursuit of the football, in addition to the offense's need to erase mistakes that can stall drives, such as dropped passes and missed blocks.
At other schools, such a substantial shakeup to the football program might necessitate a rebuilding year and lower the expectations for success. But that sentiment is nowhere to be found among the Thomson players or coaches.
Thomson's first test might come Sept. 16, when the Bulldogs travel to face Washington County, the fourth-ranked team in Class AAA in the preseason Associated Press rankings.
The Bulldogs are the defending north champions of Region 3-AAA and will likely face a challenge to that title from Richmond Academy on Sept. 29. Thomson plays its first four games on the road, and six of 10 regular season games will be played away from the new and improved Brickyard. Turner said last week he doesn't mind the schedule, and with several practices still to go before the season opener at Washington-Wilkes, he continued to seem genuinely unconcerned about anything other than the steady improvement of his team.
"Good is the enemy of great," he told his team last week after someone called that day's practice "good." "We want to be great."