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At Valdosta State, the pressing question on offense may be less if the Blazers will move the ball, but rather who’s doing so.
VSU ranked third in the nation last season at 512 total yards of offense per game. Five different Blazers contributed at least 21 receptions to the passing-game output; pace-setters Brian Saunds (54 catches, 938 yards, five touchdowns) and Lio’undre Gallimore (46 grabs, 740 yards, six scores) return for 2020.
An offense rooted in air-raid principles featuring a variety of efficient pass-catchers comes with the territory — and when it comes to the air raid, few have been as vested in the scheme for as long as Valdosta State coach Gary Goff.
A Blazers wide receiver himself, Goff played for air-raid mastermind Hal Mumme in the 1990s.
Returning to Valdosta State as head coach, Goff introduced his own spin on the system. Blazers quarterback Rogan Wells is tasked with spreading the ball through the air, but in 2019 was also one of three to rush for at least 683 yards.
Behind Wells (702 yards on 85 carries with six touchdowns), Seth McGill (683 yards on 129 carries and 13 touchdowns) and Jamar Thompkins (950 yards on 124 carries with 11 touchdowns), Valdosta State ranked No. 11 nationally in rushing yards at 260.2 per game.
Not bad for an air-raid offense.
“In our offense, we look at every position as a weapon: All four receivers, tight ends, tailbacks,” Goff said. “It’s not a challenge for us figuring out who to get the ball, but in the course of the game it becomes a challenge when you’ve got a timeout and six guys are asking you for the ball.”
“Everyone wants the ball, so it’s hard sometimes for coach Goff to choose plays, whether to run or to pass,” Wells joked. “Just get the ball to the playmakers: That’s my job.”
A coach — and a quarterback — could certainly ask for worse challenges than spreading touches among such a diverse corps of playmakers. That challenge even extends onto the depth chart, where Goff can bring in a second quarterback — Ivory Durham — and sacrifice nothing in production.
Any sacrifice that comes from Valdosta State’s offense is in the willingness to share touches for the team success. That was part of the overall process in 2019, with Goff in his first year at the helm of the perennial national championship-contending program.
“Any time you have a new coach, everybody has to buy in,” Wells said. “[Goff’s] system works. We won [the Gulf South] Conference [championship] and everything. It took some players some time to trust the trust and really get into it, but we’ve got a year under our belt now. I think we’ll be a lot better trusting the play-calling.”
Familiarity will help fuel the Blazers in 2020, both from the sidelines and on the field. The experienced nucleus that put up monster numbers a season ago is poised to build off their production.
“We’ve had the same receivers for three years now, and we’ve developed a pretty good chemistry,” Wells said. “Everyone’s coming back, so hopefully we can be more explosive, score more touchdowns.”
Now, mix in motivation to go with the familiarity. VSU has no shortage of the former ingredient.
After winning a share of the GSC title, the Blazers earned a top seed in the NCAA Playoffs, but made a rare, early exit in a 38-35 loss to league counterpart West Florida.
Goff said falling to its GSC rival — which went on to win the national championship, claiming the same crown Valdosta State’s worn four times including in 2018 — left the program with “a chip on its shoulder.”
The uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic levied on the football offseason resulted in at least an additional month for that chip to grow. The GSC opted to play a conference-only slate in 2020, kicking off in either late September or early October.
While the layoff, and the time to regroup from last November’s postseason exit, is extended, Valdosta State will have a positive foundation on which to build.
“We had a great spring practice; luckily for us, we had our spring game and the next day’s when the world came to a halt,” Goff said. “One thing about our team, we’ve got a team full of fierce competitors but they also understand what’s going on in the world. The first and foremost thing is our student-athletes being safe and we’re trying to take care of them.
“Obviously, we wanted to play the whole season but we’re very understanding that’s not going to happen and we understand why,” he added. “Now, we’re refocusing on, ‘Hey, we’ve got seven games, they’re all conference games, and they’re all very important.’”
“It’s been a long winter and spring, coming out of the playoffs early,” Wells explained. We’ve got a lot of energy right now.”
With a lot of energy and a lot of weapons, Valdosta State should have no trouble making up for any lost opportunities on the scoreboard.