Frank Hepler is excited about his team this season — perhaps as excited about any team he’s coached during his first four seasons at Forsyth Central.
On paper, it seems the Bulldogs took a step back last year, finishing 4-5 a season after reaching the playoffs in for the first time since 2001. That seven-win campaign was a massive leap forward for a team that finished 0-10 in 2017.
But four of Central’s five losses last year were one-score games, highlighted by a 29-28 double-overtime loss to North Forsyth to open region play, which triggered a four-game losing streak.
“You know, they weren’t happy about our record last year,” Hepler said. “We played some teams tough and we were in every game. We had a chance, if you go back — and I’m not one of those guys — we could have been 8-1. We lose to West by five, we lose to South by seven, lose in double overtime. Man, it easily could have been 8-1.”
Central lost 23 seniors to graduation, but Hepler estimates the Bulldogs had about 110 players out for summer workouts each day.
“Once we were allowed to start working out — I feel like it was June 8 — man, I just felt like we just picked up where we left off. I really did,” Hepler said. “I think athletically we’re really good; I think attitude we’re great; now it just comes down to how you play.”
Central’s offense begins up front, featuring a talented offensive line and a trio of seniors who averaged at least five yards per carry last season in Bronson Landreth (122 carries, 606 yards, 8 touchdowns), Eli Ruis (90 carries, 566 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Solomon Gates (28 carries, 217 yards, 4 touchdowns).
Bronson returns after starting all nine games at quarterback, completing 38 of 65 attempts for 497 yards and five touchdowns against one interception.
“I think that’s the first time since we’ve been here to have the quarterback two years in a row,” Hepler said. “We’ve had a couple good quarterbacks here, but to have them two years in a row and know the system — and really three when you look at Bronson, because Bronson and Graham (Long) both started a bunch of games, and Ryan (van Uum) is still here.”
Perhaps the Bulldogs’ biggest hole on offense is at wide receiver, where Hepler must replace current Berry College freshman Jake Bretz.
Seniors Caydin Mowen (14 catches, 220 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Noah Chol (6 catches, 71 yards) present a couple of towering targets for Landreth, as both receivers stand well over 6 feet tall.
“Caydin Mowen was one of the top touchdown-scorers last year in the county. So, Caydin and Noah at receiver,” Hepler said. “Graham can step out and play receiver. We’ve got a couple of young guys in Camden Yeager and Daniel Smith. We feel like we’ve got some skill kids, and we’re developing the offense into more of a modern-day offense.”
Senior Canaan Clark committed during the summer to East Carolina, and Hepler expects more players along the Bulldogs’ line to follow.
Junior Robby Watson, a 6-foot-3, 296-pound center, graded out at 95 percent last season and did not allow a single sack.
“On offensive line, we’re as big as we’ve ever been on offensive line, with (Canaan Clark) and (Brandyn) McMahon and (Nick) Cribbs and Robby Watson,” Hepler said. “Robby’s going to be a junior, but Robby’s going to get SEC offers. He’s 6-foot-6, 300 right now.”
Hepler said many of those players will chip in on the defensive line, too.
Sept. 4 vs. Blessed Trinity 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 11 vs. Etowah 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 18 at Loganville 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 25 vs. Cambridge 7:30 p.m.
*Oct. 2 vs. Gainesville 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 9 BYE
*Oct. 16 at Denmark 7:30 p.m.
*Oct. 23 vs. North Forsyth 7:30 p.m.
*Oct. 30 vs. West Forsyth 7:30 p.m.
*Nov. 6 at Lambert 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 13 BYE
*Nov. 20 at South Forsyth 7:30 p.m.
*Denotes Region 6-7A contest
4-5 overall, 1-4 Region 5-7A
W — Central 43, Chamblee 10
L — Cass 15, Central 7
W — Central 49, Lakeside 6
W — Central 49, Clarkston 0
L — North 29, Central 28 (2OT)
L — West 22, Central 17
L — Milton 37, Central 7
L — South 21, Central 14
W — Central 29, Lambert 22
First varsity season: 1955
Playoff appearances: 6 (1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2018)
Region titles: 3 (1996, 1997, 2000)
State titles: 0
At Central: 14-25, fifth season
Overall: 203-84, 27th season
He expects sophomore Peyton Streko to continue as Central’s starting safety, while also seeing snaps in the offensive backfield.
“That’s the luxury with the offense — the base offense. It’s pretty easy to learn,” Hepler said. “Now you just kind of tag things to spread it out a little bit, and it’s pretty simple, so it’s not like you have to study the playbook over and over and over because of the way Coach Cannon sets it up. So, it allows those guys to play both sides of the ball without being mentally drained. That lets them go out and just play.”
Central will lose a combined 144 total tackles between linebacker Brandon Redecker and defensive linemen Mitch Weber and Alex Szakacs graduating, but senior Nick Forrester figures to anchor the Bulldogs’ linebacking corps a season after collecting 59 total tackles and six tackles for loss.
Hepler is particularly high on Central’s defensive secondary, a unit that features a mix of experience in senior Jake Stephens, Choal, Long and Mowin, along with Streko, who is following up a promising freshman campaign.
“Marcus Brown will go over and play in the secondary — he was one of our slotbacks. He’ll play in the secondary with Strecko, with Noal Choal, and Caydin will play over there. Graham Long will play over there,” Hepler said. “We forget about Jake Stevens sometimes. He was our leading intercepter last year, and he’s steady. He’s not getting all the DI scholarship offers, but I think he had four, five interceptions last year. He just seems to find the ball.”