BLAIRSVILLE — There’s something to be said about experience, and the Blairsville Bobcats are counting on it this season.
And while they return several players from last year’s team, it’s not so much about the numbers as it is about who is coming back.
As they attempt to build on a somewhat surprising 6-4 campaign, the Bobcats return the majority of the players in the skill positions — quarterback, running back, wide receiver — and that’s a good place to start for first-year coach Rick Artley, who said that’s where the strength of the team lies.
“Coming into it, it’s the skill positions,” Artley said. “The quarterback, the tailback, a couple slot receivers, they’re all back from last year and know the system and were very successful last year. That year of development is going to be a big plus. We have a lot of juniors that played an entire year and were major contributors for us. … Most of our offense came from the individuals who are still here, so that’s a definite plus.”
Scott Thompson is back at quarterback, Deion Robinson returns to the backfield, and four of Blairsville’s top five receivers from last season are back.
In all, eight offensive starters return.
Thrust into action as underclassmen, Thompson and Robinson more than held their own under the bright Friday night lights, and they expect to be the centerpieces of this year’s squad.
“When you have a guy like Deion at tailback and Scott at quarterback, we at least have a nice start,” Artley said.
With that also come greater expectations, both internal and external.
“Everyone from Blairsville expects great things out of us, and our goal this year is big things,” Thompson said. “We’re not senior-loaded, but we have a lot of returning starters, and we just feel like we could do something this year.”
Junior offensive lineman Rah-dezz Henderson said he sees a different look in his teammates’ eyes heading into this season.
“I see faces that didn’t have the determination last year, and this year, you can see it all over the team,” Henderson said. “We all want to win, we all want to show people what we can do. We’ve got more players that want it. We’ve got more players that want to go to the next level and do better than we did last year.”
And at least on paper, the Bobcats have the weapons to do that.
Thompson threw for 1,673 yards last season and finished third in the area with 13 touchdown passes.
“The big thing with him is his reading of the defense for the passing game,” Artley said. “He runs the ball real well, but he’ll constantly improve reading the defense and understanding what he’s looking at.”
The 6-foot-2 Thompson certainly has room for improvement after completing less than 50 percent of his pass attempts last season while also throwing 10 interceptions in 10 games, but Artley has already seen more confidence from his quarterback “just from knowing the offense.”
“His demeanor in the huddle is something you notice right away. It’s different from what it was last year,” Artley said.
Robinson gained 789 yards and scored 10 touchdowns last year, and he did it on fewer than 100 carries. He was the only player among the area’s top 10 rushers last year with fewer than 100 carries (96), but he made them count, averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
“You see a lot of guys that can run straight away and they’re fast, but they don’t have that shiftiness,” Artley said. “Deion does. … He’s developed both physically and mentally. I’m sure he’s a different person going into the season because he’s been through it all. … Hopefully he can continue to develop because he definitely improved throughout the year last year.”
Robinson was also one of Thompson’s favorite targets in the passing game, collecting a team-high 22 receptions.
And because Thompson is just as much a threat to make a play with his legs as he is with his arm, that makes Robinson more potent.
“Probably the biggest key for us is having the ability to not have defenses key on (Robinson) because we have a guy like Scott in the backfield,” Artley said. “We’ll definitely be working both of those guys running the football.”
Thompson will have other familiar targets in the passing game.
Although he was hurt throughout camp, Colton McMillan is the main deep threat, and Cameron Livingston and Anthony Faulk are slot receivers.
Livingston led the group last year with 383 yards and five touchdowns, Faulk also got in the mix with 254 yards, and McMillan was close behind with 236 receiving yards.
“My mindset is that if you have the horses up front to bury someone, then I would run the ball,”?Artley said. “But we really honestly haven’t had that. So you go with what you have. … And we’re just not a big, physical team.
“So we’ll try to spread the field as much as possible and allow them to make plays both running and passing. For us, a lot of times the pass is what sets up the run, where a lot of other teams will run to set up their pass. But our pass game, it’s not like it’s 50 yards downfield. We throw a lot of flat routes that are similar to other people running the sweep or the toss.”
Although Artley described the offensive line as a weakness, the Bobcats have some experience.
Luke Ratkus is the lone senior and is expected to anchor a group that will include juniors Henderson, Jarod Dick and Tom Tripodis, all of whom saw invaluable playing time last year. Junior Jacob Smith and sophomore Josh Brown were in a spirited battle for the final spot.
“We went through what every offensive line goes through (last year),” Henderson said, “so we know what it takes and what our responsibilities are.”