The Callaway Cavaliers were a final four team a year ago, and an explosive offense was a big reason why.
With a dynamic quarterback, some game-breaking running backs, and an all-state wide receiver, the Cavaliers were usually unstoppable on offense.
The Cavaliers were one of the best teams in the state not just because of their ability to score points in bunches, though.
The Cavaliers also featured a dominant defense that shut down almost every opponent last season.
The Cavaliers gave up 15 points per game, but many of the points they surrendered came in the second half of blowout games when the backups were on the field.
The Cavaliers had an all-state linebacker in KeShun Freeman, who is now at Georgia Tech.
They also had a dominant defensive front that consistently caved in opposing offensive lines, as well as defensive backs who didn’t just pick off passes, but scored touchdowns for the Cavaliers.
As the Cavaliers prepare for a new season, many of the players responsible for that defensive success are gone.
Freeman graduated, as did most of the players on that dominant defensive line.
Players come and players go in high school, though, and defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard said it’ll be up to the returning players, as well as some newcomers to the lineup, to keep the Callaway defense functioning on an elite level.
“For the most part, they’re learning,” Hubbard said. “There’s a learning curve. They have good days and bad. The biggest thing is they’re willing to be coached, and they’re learning, and they’re playing hard. If they’re doing those things, we can coach you to do the rest.”
The biggest hole to fill is at Freeman’s linebacker spot.
Freeman was the Cavaliers’ leading tackler the past two seasons, and he was a leader on the team as well.
“Trying to replace him will be tough,” Hubbard said.
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, they have a standout returning player in linebacker in LaBronze Zelaya, who was a tremendous playmaker a year ago.
“Of course LaBronze is back, which is great,” Hubbard said. “He’s a three-year starter. He’s our coach on the field. He’s been in the wars, he knows it, and he’s going to get guys lined up. He’s a guy that gets all the calls from the sidelines, gets the play out. He’s kind of our quarterback on defense.”
Hubbard said some other linebackers have shown a lot of potential, including Eddie Culpepper, who is known mostly for his prowess as a running back.
Hubbard also believes Cedric Maynard and Rodney Williams are ready to accept the challenge of getting a lot more playing time at linebacker, and that Jabreel Jackson and Michael Freeman - KeShun Freeman’s younger brother - have a lot of potential as well.
“Those guys are just 10th graders, but they’re getting there,” Hubbard said of Jackson and Freeman. “They’re getting there slowly but surely. We feel like the longer they’re there, the more they practice, the better they’re going to get.”
Another linebacker, Javoski Leverette, figures to provide a boost at linebacker when he returns from a back injury.
“He’s about two more weeks away from when he’ll start practicing,” Hubbard said.
Also playing some at linebacker will be Dre Martin, who is slated to be the starting quarterback.
Martin was an impact defensive player a year ago, and Hubbard said he “will be our wildcard guy. He can play a couple of different positions,” and that includes linebacker.
“He’s a really good outside linebacker,” Hubbard said. “He’s going to play some there.”
Replacing the men on the defensive front will be a challenge.
“It was a veteran group that knew what to do,” Hubbard said of the defensive linemen. “They had done it for awhile, and were a very experienced group. Now you look at this group we have this year, and it’s kind of the opposite. But there’s some things we feel like we do better than we did last year, and things we may not be as good at. We’re trying to adapt to those guys.”
The Cavaliers do have senior Lorenzo Patterson back on the defensive line, and Hubbard is confident in J.T. Wortham’s ability to hold down a defensive-end spot.
Devin Powell, a starting offensive lineman, “is playing a lot of snaps” on the defensive line at the moment according to Hubbard.
Hubbard also said Reshawn Lovelace, who didn’t play as a sophomore because of an ACL injury, could be ready to step up and be an impact player on the defensive line.
“He’s a guy the last couple of weeks since we got pads on has really shown that he has the skill set to play,” Hubbard said. “We just have to get him where he’s able to function and know the play book.”
Two other offensive linemen, Cortney Laye and Stephen Curtis, have also been working with the defensive linemen.
And Rico Dunn, who was a safety a year ago, will likely be a starting defensive end this season.
Hubbard said the 6-foot-4 Dunn “kind of out-grew that free safety.”
The Cavaliers are also having to replace a pair of talented safeties, with Ed Daniel and Pedy Leverette having graduated.
Hubbard said Aaron Clausell has made the transition from linebacker to safety, and he is doing well, although there is alearning curve.
“He has to learn where to line up, and he has to do a better job of diagnosing routes right now,” Hubbard said. “That’ll come with time, and the game will slow down a little bit for him.”
A definite area of strength for the Cavaliers is in the defensive backfield, where Terry Godwin is set for his senior season.
Godwin, an all-state player who has verbally committed to the University of Georgia, has returned multiple interceptions for touchdowns during his time at Callaway, including one in the playoffs a year ago.
His fellow defensive back, Michael Moss, was also a starter and a standout player a year ago.
Hubbard said Braylon Sanders and Nick Woodyard are also both capable of getting it done at defensive back.
Hubbard likes the pieces he has on defense, and his hope is that as the season goes along, everything will fall into place on that side of the ball.
“The biggest part of it is, in those first games, you have to figure out what guys do well, what they struggle with,” Hubbard said. “You also have to figure out if you have a guy out of position, where they’re comfortable. You try to do that while being as competitive as you can be.”
Hubbard added that “if you can get those guys in the right spots by the time you start region play, you ultimately like your chances to be pretty good when it matters at the end of the year.”
Reach Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 (ext. 232) or on Twitter @lagrangesports