Frank Hepler’s decision to take the head coaching job at Forsyth Central was met with skepticism.
Not because of Hepler: The former West Forsyth head coach, who started the Wolverines’ program and never recorded a losing season, taking the Wolverines to the state quarterfinals in 2011, is one of the most respected and well-liked coaches in the county. Shawn Cahill, West’s current head coach, even remarked last season that he still heard Hepler’s name frequently.
Rather, it was because of the situation Hepler was stepping into, and the people he talked to were frank about it.
“When I first got there, they told me, ‘Hey, the parents at Central won’t come out. The kids at Central won’t come out. There’s nobody on the team. It’s a terrible school,’” Hepler said. “But I’ve seen nothing but greatness here.”
Given that the Bulldogs are coming off an 0-10 season, the timing of that statement seems odd. But Hepler is optimistic and positive as ever, listing improvements he’s seen in participation, conditioning and strength. And in his third year with the program, he’s hoping a few more tweaks – a new offensive system and a new, but very familiar, name at defensive coordinator – can result in a breakthrough.
Defense is one area in which the Bulldogs could actually be one of the county’s stronger teams this year. In Jackson Leak and Mitch Weber, Central has two of the most productive defensive players in Region 5-7A, and the Bulldogs also return the majority of their defensive line.
And while he wishes he could have gotten it done three years ago, Hepler now has David Rooney, who coached with him at West, as defensive coordinator. Rooney brings the same multiplicity he implemented with the Wolverines, with his teams basing out of a 3-4 defense but working in plenty of alternate looks and wrinkles along the way. The system isn’t so complicated as to be a detriment to the team, though.
“Coach Rooney does a good job at how to get that across to these guys, keeping it simple,” Hepler said. “Because sometimes with high school kids, you make it so complicated, they might run a 4.6, but now they're running a 4.9, because they're having to think so much.”
The danger of overthinking is part of what the Bulldogs’ new offense is trying to induce in opponents. Hepler looked at the task he had at Central like starting a new program, knowing how long the Bulldogs had been down – he got new uniforms, reorganized the weight room and got new locker rooms – but upon looking at the program’s past successes, he noticed that the option offense often went alongside that.
With the help of offensive coordinator Dustin Cannon, who ran a similar system when he was quarterback at Central late last decade, and inspiration from programs like Kennesaw State, Hepler has brought a system to the Bulldogs that’s unlike any other in the county.
The Bulldogs have a capably mobile quarterback in Hunter Cagle, an offensive line that returns most of its starters, and enough receivers to make the pass game still a threat. Hepler said that he’s already seen strong results from the offense, in the spring game against Alpharetta and during team camp.
“They did not like that,” Hepler said of opposing teams’ reactions. “I was like, all right, I like that! That’s an edge, maybe.”
The Bulldogs need every one of those that they can find. In recent years, they’ve been fighting smaller enrollment – they’ve been the smallest county school in their region – and lackluster recent history.
But with each year comes progress. Central is expecting some of that to finally show this year.
“(Coach Hepler) has really gotten to know us (and) form relationships with a lot of us,” senior receiver/safety Dalton Edmunds said. “He knows what we need to work on, found out where our weaknesses are, where our strengths. So I think the third year coming in is probably going to be the best one yet with coach Hepler.”