©Dale Zanine 2019_07_26 00727.JPG

Rockdale County's Darren Stephens returns for his senior season at wide receiver.

CONYERS — Changing the culture of a football program is no easy task. Just ask Rockdale County head football coach Jamie Baldwin, who inherited a program last season that hadn’t won a region game since 2015.

The Bulldogs were a program without an identity, but Baldwin soon changed that.

Wins were still hard to come by for the Bulldogs in 2018. They entered the final week of the regular season with a 2-7 record and were mathematically eliminated from the Class 7A state playoffs.

That, however, didn’t stop Baldwin and the Bulldogs from ending the season at the highest pinnacle possible — defeating cross-county rival Newton, a team playoff bound, for the first time in five years.

“Whenever you come in as a new head coach and you’re changing the system around, you know that first year is going to be shaky,” Baldwin said. “It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. Going into the second year with not a lot of new installs and defensive changes, we expect for the guys to be able to play better and understand what the goal is.”

While the Bulldogs’ thrilling victory over Newton to end the season wasn’t enough to secure a playoff spot, it did accomplish the next best thing. It created momentum heading into the offseason, something Baldwin, his coaching staff and his returning crop of players have ran with.

“Our guys see that we’ve gotten better and it’s all about the system and trusting the process,” Baldwin said. “It shows and I’m sure that our seniors this year don’t want to lose that momentum. I’m pretty confident that they are going to come in and make some of the same accomplishments, as well as strive to do better than we did last year.”

Much like that of a military background, the Bulldogs’ newfound identity has placed an emphasis on team success, rather than individual success. Baldwin, who served in the Army for eight years, has started to see his visions rub off on his players entering Year 2.

“My main job is to talk about character,” Baldwin said. “I believe that with good character comes good success. Going into the second season with that same philosophy, I believe that it will show.”

A new man in charge

When the Bulldogs take the field at Eagle’s Landing on Aug. 23, all eyes will be on first-year starting quarterback Chandler Peters, a senior eager to prove his worth.

In 2018, Justin Steele dominated the headlines as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback. The dual-threat QB threw for more than 1,000 yards and ran for another 500, but that didn’t stop Baldwin from giving Peters a chance to shine in certain spots.

Making an appearance five games last season, Peters completed nine of his 20 pass attempts for 164 yards and three touchdowns. Two of his three touchdown passes came in Region 8 games against South Gwinnett and Archer.

With an opportunity to take over the starting job full time in 2019, Baldwin is confident in his ability to lead the team in each and every game.

“Chandler has come a long way and he has put a lot of work in this offseason,” Baldwin said. “His passing is pretty good. We’re confident that he will be able to take the reins and lead that offense down the field.

He doesn’t have long legs like (Steele) had, but he brings so much more to the game that we need as far as passing accuracy and making those judgement calls. I’m pretty excited to watch him take over.”

Experienced on offense

Despite graduating their leading receiver from one season ago, Jereme Faison, Peters should have no shortage of talent at the wideout position to throw the ball to. The Bulldogs are set to return Super Six receivers Darren and Darnell Stephens, who accounted for eight of their 15 receiving touchdowns in 2018.

“Darren and Darnell are unique,” Baldwin said. “They’re both going to do great things for us on the field. When they’re on opposite sides of the ball, it’s hard for other teams to draw double teams. That makes having them on the field at the same time even better.”

With only four players in 2018 responsible for making 10 or more receptions, Baldwin is also excited about the depth he has at wide receiver this season and expects to have a stronger group all around.

“We also have some guys coming up behind them that are going to be good,” Baldwin said. “I’m really confident about our numbers. I didn’t have a whole lot last year as far as being able to trust people to go in and make plays. But we have a committee of receivers that can go in and make plays this year.”

At running back, Baldwin and the Bulldogs will replace 2018 graduates Nicolas Stephens, David Baros, Kam Black and Faison, all four of which received carries last season.

Baldwin pointed to the likes of Jaionte McMillan, a rising senior and Conner Mack, a rising junior as being just two of a large crop of running backs that will take handoffs from Peters in 2019.

“We run an up-tempo offense, so we want fresh guys in,” Baldwin said. “McMillian is a two-way player for us and Mack is another guy that will contribute in the backfield. Keaz Sellers will contribute, as well as Jarius Whitehead and Khalil Conner, who are two of our bigger backs that we will use based on scheme.

“All of those guys have contributed over the course of the summer. We’re excited about that also. Having more than one is always good. We don’t want to have to rely on just one.”

With McMillan, one of four Super Six members representing the Bulldogs in 2018, playing in the secondary on defense, too, Baldwin expects Mack to have an opportunity to make a big impact after receiving limited reps as a sophomore.

“Connor probably has the highest GPA on our team,” Baldwin said. “He’s a magnet student and is a great kid. He has busted his butt in the weight room this offseason and has gained a lot. His vision is extraordinary when he gets the ball in his hands, so we’re excited for him. I have him for two more years and that makes me even more excited.”

Proving to have zero weaknesses at the skill positions on offense, Baldwin’s experienced offensive line will be what holds everything together in 2019, barring any unforeseen changes.

“The entire offensive line is back,” Baldwin said. “That’s awesome, especially with the fact that the only person that we will lose after this year is Ed Pollard, our center. Very seldom do you have an offensive line that stays together that long. They’ve grown and matured.

“What we asked of them last season as 10th graders was a lot. They came along and did some things that we didn’t necessarily expect them to do. I’m very pleased with those young guys that have stepped up, along with Ed, who is our anchor at the center position.”

A mix of old and new

On defense, Baldwin pointed to his experienced linebacking corps as being their strongest unit.

“I’ve got two seniors in the middle in Whitehead and Cameron Gray,” Baldwin said. “They both are good at what they do. I also have Nijay Willis, who finished with the second most tackles on the team last year as a sophomore.”

The Bulldogs will have to replace the likes of Antwan Goseer, Tre’Mond Pruitt and Faison, all of whom played key roles in the secondary last season. But with athletes ready to take the next step, Baldwin expects all three levels of his defense to be up for the task in 2019.

“Defensively, we have at least one returning starter on all three levels,” Baldwin said. “We have that leadership that we’re looking for and we have several guys that came into the program recently that will contribute a lot for us.”

It is no secret that the Bulldogs play in one of the state’s most challenging 7A regions, one that includes Grayson and Archer. The Gwinnett County powerhouses have finished 1-2 in each of the past three seasons and will be favored to finish in that order again in 2019.

That, however, is not expected to change the Bulldogs’ mindset when they take the field against their Region 8 counterparts looking to stamp their name into the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

“We don’t expect to make the playoffs, we play to make the playoffs,” Baldwin said. “There is something about your style of play that changes when you expect to win. We will play everyone with the same intensity, the same fight, the same courage and the same mental focus. We’re going to play everybody the exact same way and if that leads us to the playoffs, then by all means, we’ll take it.”

Entering Year 6 as a head coach in Georgia high school football, Baldwin’s eagerness to show his team’s improvements in 2019 is through the roof.

“I haven’t been this excited in a long time,” Baldwin said. “That’s just because the steps my guys have made to get better. Coaches included. I’m excited to see the guys go out and have some fun. I’m excited to see mentally where we are going into the season.”

Sports Editor

A 2017 graduate of the University of North Georgia, Colin joined the Rockdale/Newton Citizen in March of 2018 as the papers' full-time sports editor. A 2013 graduate of Jackson County High School, Colin received a golf scholarship to Andrew College.

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