Alan Short, not one to dance around an issue, conceded the Bulldogs “no doubt ... took some lumps” last year. The preseason has been more of the same, with a two-week shutdown in August due to COVID-19 — a break that began the day after the Lawrence County coach learned of the transfer of the team’s starting quarterback and a secondary starter.
But Short retains optimism that returning Bulldogs who grew into greater roles last season will help Lawrence County continue to move forward.
“It was a growing process with the youth of our team last year,” Short said. “I feel as a coach that we’ve come leaps and bounds from last year, and we’re very excited to get to coach these guys again. ... We’ve got a lot of game experience under our belt, and we feel like we want to come out and try to close some gaps that were open last year.”
Baden Gillispie picked up his spot in the Bulldogs’ tradition of strong running quarterbacks last season, rushing for 1,170 yards and 24 touchdowns. But the senior-to-be and younger brother Kaden, who made 28 tackles to rate fourth on the team in that category as a freshman last season, have moved on to Cabell Midland.
Junior Alex Strickland and freshman Talan Pollock are options to step in under center, Short said.
Short has acknowledged Lawrence County’s hope to throw the ball successfully a little more, but whomever takes snaps will be aided by depth in the backfield, the Bulldogs anticipate.
“Business as usual,” Short said. “We at Lawrence County believe that to win football games, you’ve gotta run the football. ... We feel like we’ve got about seven or eight guys that could possibly carry the ball for us.”
Junior Blue Fletcher ran for 646 yards and two touchdowns last season and senior Andrew Tackett chipped in 147 yards and a score. Both are returning starters in the backfield.
Junior Dougie Hall, sophomore Abner Collinsworth, sophomore Dylan Ferguson and Strickland also drew mention from Short as potential pigskin-toters.
Senior Danny Hall scored at a rate of just under once every four times he touched the ball last season offensively — of 17 receptions and carries, he took four catches to the house and amassed 273 receiving yards. He is recuperating from knee surgery, Short said, but was expected to be ready to go by kickoff.
Sophomore Lawson Baisden and sophomore Jake Derifield are also working to earn time at receiver.
Three starters are back on the offensive line: senior center Kyle Davis, junior guard Tyler Bowens and junior tackle Levi Gauze. Sophomore Trace Longstreth is expected to fill an open spot, Short said, with the fifth starter to be determined as of early August.
Lawrence County will continue to be “odd” defensively — meaning it will line up a defensive lineman directly opposite the opponent’s center — and likely use more of a stack look, Short said.
Senior Michael McCauley, sophomore Makai Strickland and junior Dylan Moore started games on the defensive front last season and are back. Senior Blake Hogan is expected to provide a presence on the edge and junior Dawson Bellomy will line up in a 9-technique — essentially, a hybrid of a defensive end and outside linebacker.
Senior Brandon Davis — no relation to his similarly surnamed classmate Kyle Davis, according to Short — made 40 solo tackles, 31 assisted stops, 10.5 tackles for loss and two sacks last season. He is back at linebacker. Ferguson (22 solo tackles, 15 assisted, four tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two recovered) and Collinsworth join Davis there.
Senior Nick Collinsworth, Tackett (22 solo tackles last year), Strickland (two interceptions), Fletcher and Dougie Hall are vying for time in the defensive backfield.
Junior Logan Southers, who also plays soccer, steps in at kicker and punter for S.J. Lycans, who scored 31 points in the kicking game last year before transferring to Ashland.
Tackett, Dougie Hall and Strickland could return kicks, their coach said.
The Bulldogs (4-7 last year) fell to Pike County Central in the regular season, which sent them back to Buckleys Creek for the first round of the playoffs. There they dropped a 39-23 decision to the Hawks.
Short said Lawrence County feels more evenly matched with Pike County Central than that might indicate.
“We feel like a couple got away from us last year, and that’s been a sour taste in our mouth essentially the whole year in 2020,” Short said. “We definitely want to try to redeem ourselves moving forward.”
As of press time for this publication, due to two canceled games after the shutdown, Lawrence County isn’t scheduled to open its season until Oct. 2 against Magoffin County. As they work toward getting on the field, the Bulldogs could be forgiven for feeling a little caged.
Said Short dryly before the mandated break: “We’re trying to be the best team at exercising right now.”