Whenever a new head coach and coaching staff come into a high school football program, changes are inevitable.
Sure enough, first-year Duluth head coach Cam Jones has instituted a few changes since taking the job in March.
But one of the more interesting new features of the Wildcats program he has instituted during the summer is one based on a not-so-new idea — at least, not so new to him.
Jones and his defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Darren Sbraga recently took a group of 27 Wildcats players on a four-day, three-night tour of seven different college campuses and football programs throughout Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
“So, I’d kind of been mulling the idea around for the last couple of years since I’ve been in Georgia,” said Jones, who was an assistant at Grayson last year, and has previous coached as an assistant at Norcross and schools in Florida and his native North Carolina, and was a head coach at Lakeside-DeKalb from 2016-17. “It’s a little more popular thing to do in Florida. So my assistant head coach Darren Sbraga had done (a tour like this) before, and one of my mentors had done it before and I kind of reached out (to them) and lined everything up.”
The trip was an attempt to give them a glimpse of what college programs try to do to succeed, and perhaps give them a taste of what it will take to perhaps play football on the next level.
The tour, by design, gave them looks at programs on a variety of levels, from power-five conference FBS programs like SEC members Florida and South Carolina, to smaller FBS programs like Georgia Southern to FCS programs like Mercer, The Citadel, Charleston Southern and Jacksonville (Fla.).
“We just wanted to do it, and we want to differentiate ourselves from other schools in Gwinnett and try to be different and give our kids amy kind of opportunities and exposure,” Jones said. “Part of our vision for it is that every year, we’ll (visit) different schools. We want freshmen to go. We want sophomores, juniors and rising seniors, everybody to go. So by the time they are seniors, they’ve gone to 28 or 30 different schools and seen what they offer, what they town looks like and things of that nature, just to give that college experience, or a little bit of insight into that college experience.
“Not all our kids are going to Florida. I understand that. We have kids that have 4.0 (grade point averages) that might consider it as an academic option, but it’s not just limited to our best athletes.”
That all said, the trip was not just a sight-seeing tour based on the future.
The Wildcats also got some on-field work in to prepare themselves for the upcoming 2019 season, first by participating in a 7-on-7 passing contest against Gainesville (Fla.) High School.
“We needed something to do after we toured (the University of) Florida,” Jones said. “Coach Sbraga had been in Florida for about 10 or 11 years. He and somebody he’d worked with before at Gainesville High School, we contacted them and set that up after our tour at the University of Florida.”
Then after moving up the coast, the Wildcats got even more work in by participating in the University of South Carolina’s high school camp in Columbia, S.C., an experience Jones said was even more valuable by getting to compete alongside and against players from many other different high school programs from around the Southeast.
“Having our kids at the South Carolina camp, obviously, just seeing kids from all over Georgia, all over South Carolina and just going up against some of the best competition and competing in drills and things of that nature,” Jones said when asked about some of the biggest on-field benefits the trip brought. “Some kids kind of stood out. We had one young man, Jaiden Jones, who played quarterback last year, played running back and safety for us in the spring. He ended up running a good 40(-yard dash) time, a 4.59 (seconds), at the South Carolina camp. Jordan Coggins, who has offers from South Alabama and Liberty, had a really good showing during 1-on-1 for linebackers. So we’re excited about that. Lonnie Ratliff is a … rising sophomore, got pulled up to the upperclassmen quarterback group. He can really spin it.
“So it was a really good experience for our kids, the opportunity to compete and be able to showcase (themselves). There’s nothing to hide at camp. The numbers don’t lie, and you get to see where you stand and get to compete against the best.”
The tour was such a success that Jones wants to repeat it during summers in the future, only on an even grander scale.
And he hopes the benefits will go beyond the individual players and help further build team unity.
“We took 27 kids, which we were excited about,” Jones said. “Our (initial) goal this first year was to take 20. The kids had to pay a little bit to go. Next year, we’re hoping we can get a local business to sponsor the trip for the entire team. We’d love to take the entire team to give them the experience, and for everybody to experience it.
“Also, just from a camaraderie standpoint for our kids to spend the time together. They brought their gaming units and shared that time once we got them into rooms, things of that nature. So there were a lot of memories made along the way, as well.”