The Cartersville High football team will be losing one of its biggest and most successful senior classes ever to graduation this week.
With just two starters returning on offense and three on defense for the 2018 season, this year's 10 spring practices were even more important as the program prepares to step into a new era without many of the players who played key roles in the remarkable recent three-year stretch.
The 10-day practice session wrapped up Thursday, and head coach Joey King has been pleased with the transition to a new group of seniors and with how his players have risen to the challenge of their new roles.
"That mentality is still there, and that's what having a total program is about," he said. "You have a solid group leaving, and the next group is ready to step in there and do what they're supposed to do to continue the success of the program. Those kids are excited about that, and us as coaches are excited about that."
At this stage in 2017, the coaches already had some idea of what the two-deep depth chart was looking like. This spring, while some players have grabbed a hold of their starting spots, there are still some question marks, specifically at linebacker.
Just as important as who starts this year will be who stars for the Canes. King said they have found some playmakers and leaders to fill in for the top producers lost to graduation.
Obviously, filling in the quarterback position is a priority, and rising junior Tee Webb has sat patiently and waited his turn behind Trevor Lawrence for two years. King said Webb has looked ready to take over a position in which the Canes have had an all-state selection in six consecutive seasons.
Evan Slocum also has impressed at the quarterback position, but the promising rising sophomore is expected to start on defense at safety.
"He's going to be a really fun football player to watch the next couple of years," King said of Slocum.
Defensive line is one position that is not expected to take a step back with rising seniors Isaiah Chaney, a Wake Forest commit, and Bobby Harris holding things down at defensive end.
"Bobby has really started to lead," King said. "He's tough to block and has done a really good job for us this spring, not necessarily a surprise, but he's leading and making plays."
The Canes, as is typically the case, don't lack for offensive firepower, even with three weapons from last year's squad off to play Division-I college football. Running back Marcus Gary had a strong spring and will take over for workhorse Rico Frye at running back. Tennessee commit Jackson Lowe will step into a bigger role on offense this year at tight end, as will receiver Kaleb Chatmon.
Chatmon's recruitment has been hotter than anyone's in the program this spring, and the speedster will have a solid selection of FBS college programs to choose from when he makes his decision.
Despite Lawrence already enrolling at Clemson, the college coaches haven't ceased to make Cartersville a destination in their spring recruitment efforts. A who's who of elite college football programs watched the Canes work at some point over the 10 practices.
"The traffic is still pretty heavy and still pretty consistent," King said of the colleges at spring practice. "With our program's success and the fact that we're right here on I-75 and have been in the national spotlight the last couple of years, those guys are still going to roll through here. There definitely hasn't been a drop off in that."
Linebacker is still an area of concern, and King is still unsure of who will take those four positions. Offensive line also was a position of concern in December with five holes to fill in, but the offseason has helped ease King's mind to some degree along the front.
"We've kind of honed in on who the top five are right now. We have about seven or eight guys we're rolling in there," he said. "Obviously, we'll be totally new there. But, I think, by the time the season rolls around, they'll be ready, but we're not close right now."
King has been recruiting off the soccer team for a kicker, and believes he's found some candidates to take the role of the departing Jonathan Cruz. While the candidates to replace Cruz might not threaten any of the UNC Charlotte signee's Cartersville records, King said Elian Abeja at kicker and Ricardo Torres at punter impressed in spring ball.
The Canes continued to see remarkable numbers in spring for a Class 4A program. King estimated there were about 75-80 participants in spring this year from grades 10-12 alone. There were another 47 rising freshmen who participated the week before in a freshman-only session without pads.
Besides the freshmen, this year's spring practice saw fewer new faces. There have been no high-impact transfers so far, like Frye a season ago or E.J. Turner the year before. To this point, the Canes haven't had any major move-ins.
"Even before I got here, there was one or two key move-ins. But, right now, we haven't had any," King said. "And that's OK. Our guys are ready, but we know that there are people who want to be a part of our program. It may attract kids, it may not. But we're going to coach whoever's in our program and is in our building, regardless of if they moved in or not."
There will be some new names on the coaching staff, though. King said four coaches will have to be replaced from now until the season starts.
While there is not as much continuity from 2017 to 2018 as there has been in years prior, as far as personnel, King says the habits, mentality and standards of the program have remained intact.
That doesn't mean there isn't still plenty of work to be done between now and August.
"At times, we are kind of like a roller coaster. We were really, really good and we were really, really bad. So we have to develop some consistency in order to be a good football team," King said. "We're making a lot of progress. I told the guys Thursday, I'm happy with the way they competed. The growth that took place from Day 1 to Day 10 has been phenomenal.
"The excitement that's in the air is outstanding. We're excited about the fall, but we're not quite ready for it yet. We still have a lot of work to do this offseason."