By James Butler
Lovejoy concluded its 2015 spring practices with the annual Blue & White game Friday at Twelve Oaks Stadium.
In a game where the rosters were decided via a draft in an effort to make the game as competitive as possible, the Blue team defeated the White team 21-13.
Standing out was the Wildcats passing game as they look to replace the production of five-star wide receiver and Tennessee signee Preston Williams, and a two-year starter at quarterback in Quintarius Neely.
It was rising sophomore quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams who was highlighted under center as he piloted the Blue team Friday night. Williams looked impressive, throwing touchdown strikes of 51 and 39 yards respectively to Jayden Thomas and Shederius Rakestraw.
White team quarterback Trevaro Hardy got the chance to show off his arm also, when he connected with Malik Route for a 16-yard touchdown pass late in the game.
Lovejoy head coach Edgar Carson, now in his second year, said he’s pleased with the effort of signal callers and pass catchers, even as they work to find new pieces to their offensive puzzle.
“We started out slow at the first practice, but the kids are working real hard,” Carson said of his passing game.
Thomas’ touchdown came off a short, quick pass from Williams as he showcased his ability to gain yards after the catch — AKA “YAC Yards. It’s something Thomas said he wants to pride himself in.
“I’m getting better at it,” Thomas said. “I caught the hitch, turned outside and I just saw it open. I just ran as fast as I could and I scored.”
“He’s got that type of playmaking and game-breaking ability,” Carson said. “So we’re looking for some big things out of him.”
Thomas and Williams have already built created some chemistry with each other, and it showed.
“I played with Jayden last year on JV,” Williams said. “He’s a family friend too, so I’ve been playing with him for a while.”
“He’s a good player,” Thomas said of Williams. “We’re getting better as a team. We’re just getting better every day.”
Williams played freshman and JV football last year with some mop-up duty for varsity during its 7-4 2014 campaign. He will be counted on for more this season.
“Right now he’s projected to be our starting quarterback,” Carson said.
Neely was expected to be a rising senior for Lovejoy with a chance to be a three-year starter under center, but transferred to Roswell after last season.
“When Quintarius was here he was a big brother to me,” Williams said. “He taught me a lot and when he left I knew I had to step up to this position.”
“We wish (Neely) nothing the best, but the future is bright with Hajj-Malik,” Carson said. “Hajj was going to push him for the job. The job is always open.”
Likewise, Carson says Hardy’s play can land him the starting job.
“He’s a pretty good quarterback too,” Carson said. “He’s going to be a senior, so he’s going to push Hajj-Malik for that starting job.”
While replacing Neely is one thing, replacing one of the nation’s top receivers in Williams is another challenge altogether. That doesn’t mean Thomas will shy away from the unenviable task of trying to help fill a blue-chip player’s shoes.
“I’m trying to get better [and] make it like he did,” Thomas said.
Rakestraw returns after missing last football season to focus on academics.
“We got him back,” Carson said. “We’re hoping that he can help us in the passing game as well.”
In addition to his aforementioned 16-yard touchdown grab, Route probably had perhaps the play of the game as he took a jet sweep 85 yards for a touchdown. That adds to his ability to beat defensive backs, something Williams already likes.
“He’s a good receiver,” Williams said. “He’s quick. When it’s one-on-one I can always go to him.”
Rising sophomore running back Zion Custis also showed he can contribute to the passing game out of the backfield. He has the lineage to be an impact player with his cousins Travis, Montrell, and Treveyion already having impacted the program in recent years.
“We look for some big things from him,” Carson said. “His cousins have done a pretty good job over the years, so he falls in that category with those Custises.”
Utilizing the Wildcat’s offensive talent will be New offensive coordinator Brandon Byram who comes over from Griffin, will be the one tasked with assembling all the young parts to what could be a surprisingly effective offense.
The Wildcats’ passing attack looked crisp for its first public showing, so Lovejoy could have a chance at being similarly productive as it was last season.