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Hamilton County High School
Moving forward

Trojans eye improvement with new coach, system

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Hamilton County's Jeremiah Gibson will be one of the young players the Trojans are leaning on this fall.

New coach Richard Vester has brought tunnel vision with him to Hamilton County.

The back-to-back 1-win campaigns in 2017-18? They don’t matter to Vester.

The fact Vester is the Trojans’ third coach the past two years, fourth in three years and fifth since HCHS played for the Class 1A state title in 2014? Old news.

“We’ve really just tried to focus on the future,” said Vester, who arrived in Jasper in December after a four-year stint as head coach at Newberry. “You can’t do anything about the past, so we’re just focused on the present, the future and now more so than what happened in the past.

“We’re making our own history.”

And for the most part, Vester said the Trojans have responded to that message and to the new coaching staff.

“There’s some kids that just love football and they were almost instantly bought in,” he said. “There’s still a few guys that are still working through that.”

Jhebari Martin, a junior offensive and defensive lineman, agreed at the North Central Florida Media Days in Gainesville in July that there was a process the players had to go through to deal with another round of moving coaches and transition.

“It’s been kind of hard to get used to the coaches and the new staff,” he said. “But at the end, you just have to trust the process and be here. You have to be a follower before you can be a leader. Just trust. Walk with faith, blind faith.”

That faith, that buy-in is what Vester has enjoyed. As well as a willingness from the Trojans to get to work.

“But I like the place where we’re at,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of guys that have been there for each other. It’s almost like I’m coming into their circle.”

And it’s a close-knit circle.

Vester said Hamilton averaged about 20 kids per workout during the summer and the Trojans will begin the varsity season with a roster of 19 players.

Which means, pretty much every player will be utilized on both sides of the ball as well as special teams.

“Going both ways, it can humble you,” Martin said. “As our team, we go both ways and everybody is playing their hardest both ways, doing their part. It’s good for us.”

Vester admitted the lack of depth is a concern to him, as a coach. But he said the players haven’t seemed to mind.

“They don’t care,” he said. “They’re actually excited about the challenge. Being that group that can handle the season with that many guys. It’ll be interesting.”

Part of the transition to Vester was a change for Hamilton County back to a Wing-T offense that it used in that 2014 season that included a championship game berth. A year ago, the Trojans utilized more of a spread attack, one that averaged 10.4 points per game and was shut out four times.

“They love it,” Vester said of the offensive switch. “And it fits us, man. We’re big and strong up front and we’ve got skilled guys that can run in the backfield.

“It’s perfect for what we have right now.”

Leading that charge of skilled runners in the backfield will be junior Tyler Whetstone, who has been handed the keys to the offense. Whetstone is Hamilton’s top returning rusher from a year ago, when he finished with 168 yards on 47 carries.

“When we need a play, we know we can certainly rely on him to make something happen,” Vester added. “He’s slippery. He’s tough to bring down.”

Joining Whetstone in the backfield will be sophomore burner Jeremiah Gibson at tailback. Gibson, who placed eighth in the state track meet as a freshman, rushed for 143 yards and a pair of long touchdowns in the Trojans’ spring game.

Connor Jones will start at the wing for Hamilton while Kejuan Robinson, Foster Bristol and Kane Miller will share time at fullback with Miller also being utilized as a tight end and H-back.

Hamilton’s wide receivers will be a pair of seniors in Alonzo Lee and Nigel Cherry, who both will also start in the secondary where they will be joined by Whetstone and Gibson.

Joining Martin — who may be used at multiple positions across the offensive line — up front is David Pert at right tackle. Lester said the other positions are still up for grabs with young players competing to see who can emerge. He said Martin will be plugged in wherever the Trojans need him.

Hamilton’s defensive line will be led by a player that will focus strictly on that side of the ball in nose guard Nicholas Shackelford, who just came out for the team this spring.

“He eats it up,” Vester said of Shackelford. “He’s there every day, works his tail off.”

Martin will also play defensive end while the rest of the offensive linemen will rotate at defensive tackle.

The trio of fullbacks and Jones will man the linebacking corps, Bristol and Miller in the middle.

Omar Lopez will handle kicking duties for Hamilton while Vester said he is excited to see what Gibson can do on special teams.

And if those Trojans can stay healthy, Vester said he likes their chances to be competitive.

But they hope to be more than that. Vester said the playoffs are “absolutely” a goal, while admitting everybody dreams of state titles.

The players have too.

“Championships, too,” Martin said. “Not just playoffs, championships too.”

Vester added: “Once you get in the playoffs … anything can happen. It’d be fun to watch these 16-18 kids from Jasper, Florida. It’d make for a hell of a story.”