By James Butler
RIVERDALE Ga. – A few months removed from its most successful season in program history, if the Drew Titans football team wants an encore performance in 2016, it’ll have to do so with a largely new cast of performers.
Coach Dorwyn Lyles returns just three offensive starters and four defensive starters from a team that advanced to the Class 5A Quarterfinals. Thus, while speaking at Wednesday’s 2016 Clayton County Football Media Day along with five of his players, Lyles embraced the obvious.
“We’ve got a lot of holes to fill on both sides,” Lyles said.
Perhaps, the two biggest holes to fill are the college-bound duo of quarterback Joseph Newman and running back Quarderman Sloan. The duo combined for over 5,000 total yards as they helped spearhead a Drew offense that averaged over 40 points per game in 2015.
The players slated to replace them are quarterback Gary Tyner and running back Cedric Davenport.
“Both of them played last year in different roles, so they have contributed, and they know how we compete,” Lyles said of Tyner and Davenport. “They’ve been under the lights. It’s just a matter of them getting more touches, so we feel pretty comfortable with what they will contribute for us this year.”
Lyles and the Titans are hoping to plug the holes and play their trademark spread attack, while adjusting for the differing skills for the new starters.
“Gary played JV last year, and they ran the same thing we did on varsity,” Lyles said. “Our JV team was very successful and went undefeated, so we’ll cater to his skill set a little bit.
“He’s a little different quarterback Joseph was, so there are some things that he does really well right now that maybe [Joseph] was a little better [at] last year. We’re kind of catering to what he does.”
Tyner threw two varsity passes last season, and since then, through scrimmages and practices, he has come to know what to expect playing against varsity competition.
“Everything’s faster on varsity,” Tyner said.
He also studied Newman last year, and could see some of his own style of play in the current Wofford Terrier.
“I was taking mental reps,” Tyner said. “Watching [Joseph], I learned a lot from him. […] We both got the ability to run and pass. We can attack different ways. Passion wise, it’s a lot of similarities.”
Davenport rushed for 248 yards and six touchdown when Sloan or Newman was not carrying the ball a year ago, while also adding 433 yards and four touchdowns receiving. Not surprisingly, the Titans expect him to hit the ground running — literally — in 2016.
“Cedric does all of it,” Lyles said. “He’s a tremendous runner, catches the ball out of the backfield, so that’s what we’re looking for in our running back. He’s got to be versatile, so for us, the transition for Cedric is a lot easier than what it is for Gary at quarterback.”
Davenport, a junior and one of the returning starters on Drew’s offense, has spent the spring and summer trying to impact his team with his intangibles, while looking to follow the success of Sloan and Marquis Terry before him at running back for the Titans.
“Being a leader, for the most part,” Davenport said of his work since spring. “I’m looking to keep the running backs moving [forward], keep 2,000 yards (rushing) moving.”
One new offensive starter who has already impressed is slot receiver Lloyd Wheeler.
“Lloyd has really jumped off the charts for us this summer,” Lyles said. His work ethic, his quality of performance, the things that he does. We lost two out of the starting three receivers. Bryson [Duckworth], who’s going to Georgia State, and Mason [Williams], who’s been the slot receiver.
“Lloyd’s pretty much going to take over those slot receiver roles. He offers a little more versatility than what we had in previous years, is an excellent route runner, [and] has good hands.”
Wheeler likes how the offense is progressing with the new pieces and its potential.
“It’s looking good so far, but since we have a new quarterback, new receivers, we got to get better communication with each other,” Wheeler said. “Once we get the communication down, I think we’ll have even a better offense than we had last year.”
Not to be overlooked are the holes to be filled on Drew’s defense.
“Defensively, our biggest need is probably just to solidify our front group, and just get our back half to play more consistently,” Lyles said.
A couple of players who will help with those tasks are junior Michael Latimer and senior Nelson Armour. Latimer started every game at safety a season ago, and Armour, who Lyles describes as being spirited and strong, started on the defensive line.
Both Latimer and Armour have taken on the roles of leaders for the Titans’ defense, and they both have an idea of what they want to see from their unit in 2016.
“Offense, they always have been seen as the people who win games for us,” Latimer said. “If the defense steps up, it will take weight off the offense and make the games easier. That’s what we got to do.”
Armour believes teamwork will be important in accomplishing that goal.
“I think the mindset for the defense is to be a team and to just have that leadership, where we can know that we are here together,” Armour said. “We need all 11 to come together and be a unit.”
PREPARING FOR BATTLE
Drew moves to Region 4-AAAAAA, where it will face fellow county schools Jonesboro, Lovejoy, Mundy’s Mill, Mount Zion, and Forest Park as well as DeKalb County foes Tucker, Stephenson and MLK.
“It’s going to be tough,” Lyles said. “The county schools, it’s always going to be tough and competitive. “For us, competing with the DeKalb schools, it would be nice if all the Clayton schools can take those four spots in the seeding.
“We got our work cut out for us. Tucker, MLK, Stephenson, historically have been really good programs, but we play good football here in Clayton County and we’re looking forward to the challenge. We’ll line up and see how it goes.”
Armour said the players are excited about the new region.
“We are looking forward to it because we know that these are going to be games where we can challenge ourselves as a team and see if we can pull together to be the best team we know we can be,” he said. “It’ll be great competition.”
With the new competition and the new starters, Lyles views the season as a litmus test to see where the Titan program is at.
“It’s a real good barrier to see where we are – if we can, not maintain, but even improve on what we did last year,” he said. “This is really going to be an interesting scenario.”