If there’s one general rule about high school football that Keith Maloof has learned over his 24 seasons as a head coach, the last 21 at Norcross, it is that a lot can change over the course of a year.

That is particularly true when it comes to the maturity level of a team, and the veteran coach has definitely seen a marked difference in the experience and maturity level of his Blue Devils this summer compared to where they were this time a year ago.

“I think we’re way ahead of where we were last year,” Maloof said. “Over the summer, we’ve gotten better. We’ve competed, and we won the St. Pius (7-on-7) tournament (earlier this month). Before, we were just scratching the surface by the end of the summer. So in June, we won (the St. Pius tournament). In July, we’ll focus on us and try to get better and fine tune it.”

The Blue Devils have already done quite a bit of fine-tuning already through spring practice and through 7-on-7 tournament and positional camp season so far this summer.

That’s not particularly surprising considering the experience several youngsters, including as many as 15 rising juniors who saw playing time as sophomores, got during the 2018 campaign, like receiver Antwan Allen, running back/linebacker Michael Porter, safety Josh Graham, defensive linemen Cyrus Goldsmith and Kamren Lark, linebacker Jalen Garner and offensive linemen Abel Aguirre, Pharoah Green and Quinton Bradford.

“No doubt,” Maloof said. “Not only overall, but the (maturation of the) offensive line has been huge. Defensively, it’s been huge. Offensively, we lose a lot of receivers, but we’ve got guys that are ready to step up. I can’t give you a true evaluation until we get through one or two games.”

That last statement is one that Maloof is also quick to point out about his team this fall, and more specifically about the the patience it will take him and his coaching staff to sort out the exact personnel make-up that will take the field the rest of the summer and into the 2019 regular season into the fall.

Patience and evaluation will be particularly important in a few specific positions, as well.

For example, finding exactly who will step in to succeed last year’s starting quarterback, graduated senior Louis Williams, will be particularly complicated with three rising junior transfer candidates added to the program — Trey Goodman (from Lakeside-DeKalb), Mason Kaplan (from Chattahoochee) and Nick Best (from Collins Hill) — who will compete with fellow rising junior Harris Celata.

With so many new players in the mix, Maloof said that the evaluation process will likely take longer than in might in most seasons.

“We’ve got four kids, … three that have moved in,” Maloof said. “I can’t (give) you a full evaluation yet. It might be into the second or third game (of the season) before I know who the guy is. But what I’m proud of is that the kids have accepted that, and they’ve worked hard.”

Then there are other positions, such as linebacker, which has been a bellwether position for the Blue Devils’ defense over the years, and must fill the shoes of graduated seniors Christian Wright and Tyler Moore, the team’s two leading tacklers from a year ago.

Like the quarterback competition, there are plenty of contenders to fill those shoes, like rising juniors Garner and Zaire Lee, rising senior Tim Leaks and rising sophomore Zakye Barker.

And like the quarterback position, Maloof says that defensive coordinator Pat Standard and his position coaches will need some time to fully evaluate the competition for playing time at linebacker.

But he also believes that taking a little extra time and having patience will pay long-term dividends.

“We’ve got some players,” Maloof said. “It’s really big. We’ve got guys that can step up on defense and keep doing what we’ve been doing. Defensively, that’s how you win ball games.”

In the end, Maloof is confident that not only are he and his coaches prepared to be a little patient with their evaluations as the 2019 season approaches, the players involved are now mature enough to also have the patience and to keep working hard as the evaluation process plays itself out.

“Our kids are growing up,” Maloof said.

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Graduated from GSU in 1990. Have worked in sports journalism for the past 28 years, covering a variety of sports at the Gwinnett Daily News, AJC, Lafayette (La.) Daily Advertiser and Marietta Daily Journal before returning to Gwinnett at the Post in 2007.