Wildcats aim for state title

By JOSHUA CAMPBELL,

In head coach Chip Bilderback’s first year at the helm, he guided the Columbia Wildcats to an improbable 10-win season and had them looking like a juggernaut for years to come.

Now with heavy expectations ranging from state championship predictions to a host of players with scholarship offers, the Wildcats are looking to build off 2018’s success and reach the promised land.

It began in the weight room for the team ranked No. 1 in Class 3A in the preseason poll, and Bilderback said the team really bought in to the offseason strength and conditioning program where its mantra was to earn it every day.

“Our intention has been on getting that 1 percent better every day, and I think we’ve had a great offseason. Our kids have definitely gotten stronger in the weight room,” he said. “What you have to try to battle against is that complacency after winning 10 games and having that same hunger and drive that you had when you didn’t have a successful season.”

Bilderback added a challenge was placed in front of the leaders to make the Wildcats a player-led team rather than a coach-led team. Being a family was prevalent amongst players as Jamison Kelly, Kentrel Bullock and Jordan Aaron said coming together as one will help the Wildcats take the next step.

Similar to last season the Wildcats are entering the season with two players vying for the starting quarterback role, and whichever one doesn’t get the job will be athletic enough to help the team as a receiver on the perimeter. Bilderback said both Josh Brown and Javen Moses have had great summers and haven’t missed a single workout. He added that they both have improved on their weaknesses to become more well-rounded players and that with the schedule Columbia has it’s important to have two guys capable of guiding the team as the signal caller.

“Josh is a dynamic playmaker, and Javen is such a great pocket passer and has a presence about him. I believe both of them will play quarterback. I don’t know who’s going to win it Game 1 — there’s still a lot of time — and whoever starts the season may progress and by district it might be someone else. I don’t know where it’s going to take us, but it’s been a fun, healthy competition to watch. They’re both working hard and staying after practice, and that’s what you want.”

Bilderback added it’s going to come down to which quarterback makes everyone around him better and which one can run the offense most efficiently.

After combining for 2,665 yards and 33 touchdowns on the ground in 2018, both Kentrel Bullock, an Ole Miss commit, and Omarie Johnson return in the backfield and have each added about 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason.

“They’re great players, great kids, work extremely hard and do all the things you ask them to do, but they both block for each other as well. They’re very unselfish in that way. We’re glad we have both of them back. They’re both explosive, yet different. That’s what makes them special,” Bilderback said.

Darreious Bullock, AJ Walker and Greg Fortenberry are all vying for the H-back role and will likely rotate because they all have roles defensively as well. Bilderback lauded Fortenberry’s versatility at 245 pounds by being able to play H-back, tight end, offensive guard, defensive line and linebacker because he moves so well for his size.

The offensive line figures to be a strength again with Jordan Aaron at left tackle, Joey Croom, who has put on 30 pounds, at left guard and Ethan Bond at center all returning to the offensive line as three-year starters. Christian Rowell is expected to step in at right guard, and a pair of sophomores, Jason Townsend (6-foot-5, 360 pounds) and Roydale Barnes (6-foot-5, 263 pounds), are battling it out at right tackle. Bilderback said they’ve both improved during the offseason and will play early on until it’s figured out which one is the guy.

“We feel like we have six guys for those five spots we feel really, really good about,” he said.

Kelly, a Louisiana Tech commit, returns on the outside and will be joined by some new faces in the wide receivers corps. Dashod Ball and Daqwan Jones will factor in on the outside, while Sadarion Magee and Tryson Johnson will fill in in the slot. Returning starter Teshonne Franklin, who primarily lines up at tight end, will be flexed out some to take advantage of his athleticism, and Moses, who Bilderback said may have the best hands on the team, could see some reps outside, too.

“Obviously we lost Dylan Henry and De’Torres Lewis, and those are some big shoes to fill, but we believe we can get it from a bunch of different people,” Bilderback said. “In what we do offensively, not only do they have to be guys that catch the ball well, but they have to be able to block on the perimeter, which is a tough thing to do.”

Columbia’s defensive line may have been the strength of the team in 2018, perhaps even ahead of the running game, and while it lost some depth Bilderback believes it will remain a dominant unit.

“We’ll be a man or two thinner, but we like the pieces we have coming back and every single one of them has gotten better,” he said. “At nose guard Jeremiah Haynes had a great spring and has carried that over into the offseason. Jaheim Oatis had a great offseason and is a massive body in there but moves extremely well. We’re excited about seeing him take that next step.”

Aaron, Fortenberry and Justin Lee all played big roles last season and can move inside or outside on the line, as can Oatis. Bilderback is especially excited about Lee.

“Justin has put on 20 pounds, and he runs even better than he did last year,” he said. “We missed him in the spring because he broke his hand the first day of spring practice in pads. We hated that he didn’t get to go through spring, but it didn’t slow down his work and his drive.”

Columbia can run both an even or odd front with five men on the line of scrimmage, and Bilderback said having Haynes in the middle is what allows the Wildcats to be versatile week to week with the different styles of offense they face.

Croom and KD Andrews return as the starting linebackers, and a new face emerged during the spring in Walker. Andrews was hampered by a hamstring injury during the spring, opening the door for Walker. Bilderback said the trio will likely rotate, with both Fortenberry and Johnson factoring in as well. Four of the five will have roles on offense, which will allow Bilderback to mix and match as needed.

Franklin, Jones and Jonathan Wiltz are in the mix to fill in Columbia’s outside linebacker/strong safety hybrid defender that Kevon Cloyd dominated in 2018. Bilderback said he’s been really impressed with Wiltz’s development and that Franklin mixes the ability to play the run and pass.

Cornerback is the biggest position to fill defensively with Lewis and Henry graduating. Daquan Ball, Bullock, Brown, Magee and Johnson will fill the position by committee early in the year until a pecking order works itself out, according to Bilderback. Dashod Ball can play both safety and corner and could get some reps, too.

Kelly is the quarterback of the defense at free safety and had six interceptions in 2018 to go along with 88 tackles, nine passes defended, eight tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

“Having a guy like Jamison Kelly back deep in the middle makes you feel really good. Jamison is a hard worker, had a great offseason, has put on about 13 pounds and actually improved his speed,” Bilderback said. “He plays the game the right way. He’s going to make a physical hit every game. That’s the attitude you want your defense to have. You want guys with relentless effort, and when they get to the ball they’re going to hit you.”

While the Wildcats had a dream season a year ago after winning just three games in 2017, they placed second in Region 8-3A and were eliminated in the third round of the playoffs by Jeff Davis. Their sights are set a little higher this time around.

“I just want a state championship at the end of the day,” Kelly said. 

Pictured Above: From left, Jamison Kelly, Joey Croom, Jordan Aaron lead a senior-heavy Columbia team heading into 2019. | Photo by Joshua Campbell