After a grueling day at Camp Blanding during last year’s preseason camp, the Branford High seniors and coach Tim Clark sat in the barracks and discussed what they hoped to accomplish in 2018.
The goals that emerged were a winning season and a shot at the Class 1A playoffs. Mission accomplished on both fronts as Branford went 6-5 for its first winning season since 2010 and played in a postseason game for the first time since 2000.
Now, the Bucs have to try to continue to raise that bar.
“One of my big sayings to them is, ‘Every time you meet a goal you get a newer and better goal,’” Clark said. “So I hope none of them say we want to go 6-4 again.
“I want that to not be an abnormality. I want that to be our standard where, hopefully, 6-4 eventually isn’t what we’re gunning for.”
That shouldn’t be a problem. At the North Central Florida Media Day in Gainesville in July, seniors Dakota Hamm, Colton Leibold and Brock Lewis said the goals were to continue building the program.
“Win,” Hamm said of their goal. “Make the playoffs again.”
Lewis added: “Go deeper in the playoffs.
“It’s important to show that it’s not just a fluke. But that’s definitely doable. I think this year we can do a lot better than we did last year. And we can of from there.”
Those three and the remainder of the Bucs’ seven-man senior class will be key to accomplishing that goal, especially considering Branford is having to replace an 18-member senior class from a year ago that included All-State performers Jevin Johnson and Aaron McQuay, who was honorable mention All-State the past two years after consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
In McQuay’s place as the featured back in Branford’s run-first offense will be Hamm. A 6-foot, 200-pound back, Hamm has rushed for 663 yards and five touchdowns on 117 carries the past two years in limited action.
“He’s got great strength, good size,” Clark said of Hamm. “He’s a powerful, physical runner.
“It’s his turn…I’m really confident in what he’ll be able to do.”
Clark said in addition to Bodhi White getting some looks behind Hamm, the Bucs would also try to find ways to get a couple of their other playmakers the ball out of the backfield as well. Whether it’s jet sweeps or tosses with Leibold or putting Junior Cress, a 6-1, 220-pound tight end, in the backfield in a two-back set.
Who will be in the backfield with Hamm, though, is still to be decided. Junior Seth Heiderman returns after seeing significant time at quarterback down the stretch last year and is competing with sophomore Kyson Johnson.
Clark said both Heiderman and Johnson will play and that Johnson’s athletic ability makes him an asset at receiver too.
“We’re going to tinker with some stuff because we’ve got them, we should use them,” he said, adding there will be packages with each guy at quarterback and possibly some looks that put both in the backfield.
“Kyson factors in as one of those playmakers that needs to have the ball in his hands, whether he’s behind center or in the gun running it, or whether he’s throwing it or whether he is split wide or in the slot catching it, he needs to have the ball in his hands.
In addition to Johnson, Leibold (13 catches for 220 yards last year) and Cress (16 catches for 226 yards) will also be joined as playmakers in the passing game by Clay Williams and Adrik Miller with Markell Pugh and Hamm also showing the ability to be a factor from the slot during 7-on-7 work this summer.
Providing room for those playmakers to operate will be an offensive line that returns two starters in center Barrett Young and tackle Colton Allen. Otherwise, it’s a group that is short on experience but long on talent and size. Clark said Will Phillips, Miguel Garcia, Sam Alred, Devin Mosley and Matt Warren all will figure into the mix up front.
That group will also factor in on the defensive line, notably Phillips and Mosley, around Cress, Lewis and Chris Davila.
“We won’t change much on defense,” Clark said. “We know what we are and what we have to do up there. We don’t have the maneaters up front that just dominate. We’ve done pretty well with having maybe a little more slender, quicker, more explosive guy on that defensive line that can make plays.”
Cress, who is the top returning tackler on the defense after registering 54 stops and four sacks last year, and Lewis also could be utilized at linebacker where Branford is having to replace nearly their entire depth on the inside. Hamm will also see time at linebacker, although the Bucs will have to find the right balance between carries on offense and snaps on defense. Joining him will be White and Pugh as well as Jeremy Byrd, one of the strongest Bucs according to Clark.
Clark also said he feels good about the secondary will Leibold returns at free safety and Heiderman will also play safety. Williams, Zach Lebrun and Johnson will also see time in the secondary.
“We’ve got good experience there,” Clark said,. “We’re pretty secure on the back end with what we’ve got.”
Hamm punted a year ago and could return there, although Clark said Lance Mathis handled some kicking duties during the spring and his progress will be monitored as well. In fact, depending on how Mathis develops, Clark said there may be something new seen at Branford this fall.
“I don’t know if a field goal has been attempted at Branford — once in my playing and definitely not in my coaching career,” Clark said laughing. “So that may be a goal for us this year, is to actually attempt a three-point field goal.”