The stage is set for Ridgeland-Hardeeville to step into Class 3A — ready or not.
It could be a crash course for the Jaguars and coach Jahmaal Nelson, still well into the building process after last year’s 2-8 season halted the momentum of a playoff run in his first year on campus.
“It’s a big challenge,” said Nelson, whose 35-man roster features just 15 juniors and seniors. “We were very young last year, and our numbers are down. Everybody has to play both ways, and play on special teams. We’re working to be in shape for that.”
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Too bad the transition couldn’t have taken place two years ago, when Nelson’s first squad turned in an 8-4 season that ended in the second round of the Class 2A playoffs. That earned Nelson accolades as the Island Packet/Beaufort Gazette’s coach of the year.
When the playmakers who keyed that team moved on, though, the momentum stalled. Even with a roster that counted 23 seniors, Nelson found himself leaning on younger players during last year’s struggles.
“Even though we had 23 seniors last year, only three actually had ever played (organized) football before,” Nelson noted. “So even though they were seniors, they were still young. We’re still trying to get this program established and where we need to be.”
Not that there isn’t talent on the roster. Seniors Davontay Dopson and Kamrin Williams will key the Jaguars’ option attack, along with fleet sophomore Freddie Aiken III. Both Dopson and Aiken also have the ability to play receiver if that will get the ball in their hands.
The defense also should be strong up the middle, with nose guard Zion Wilson and linebacker Malik Bostic anchoring those levels. Dopson, Williams and Aiken also are expected to be major contributors there.
“We’re just so much further ahead defensively,” Nelson said. “We fly around and play good technique and fundamentals. The defense is definitely stirring our pot right now. The kids get after it.”
That will be important as the offense, built to control possession, finds its chemistry.
“We need to allow our offense the chance to control the clock and move the ball.”
One silver lining for the Jaguars may be this year’s makeup of Region 8, which includes brand-new May River High and a Battery Creek program that got a late start when Fred Hamilton didn’t come on board until the summer.
Nelson hopes to use a challenging early season schedule to get the Jaguars ready for the games that count.
“If you ultimately want to be a champion, you’ve got to have a tough schedule,” Nelson said. “I set the schedule up for us to be tough, especially with us (moving up to) 3A. Each game is going to be exciting for us.”
REGION: Class 3A, Region 8
COACH: Jahmaal Nelson (third year, 10-12 overall)
2015 RECORD: 2-8 (1-4 Region 5-2A)
KEY RETURNERS: RB Devontay Dopson, RB Kamrin Williams, QB Jabari Williams, DL Zion Wilson, LB Malik Bostic
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: A tough non-region schedule doesn’t help the won/loss record but steels the Jaguars for region play, where a couple of well-timed wins could put them in the playoff hunt. That would make the trip to Wade Hampton loom large in the next-to-last week.
- Aug. 19: vs. Thomas Heyward, 7:30 p.m.
- Aug. 26: at Estill, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 2: vs. Allendale-Fairfax, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 9: at Lake Marion, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 16: at Colleton County, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 23: at Hilton Head, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 30: Open
- Oct. 7: vs. May River, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 14: at Battery Creek, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 21: vs. Wade Hampton, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 28: at Bluffton, 7:30 p.m.