Culture of competition: Zach Grage era begins at Lowndes

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Jul. 29—VALDOSTA — The 2022 season ushers in a new era for Lowndes High football.

The Vikings enter this season with a new head coach, a new quarterback and a running back poised for a breakout as well as a young defense looking to find its footing after a down year by its own standards.

Former Thomasville head coach Zach Grage was introduced as the new head coach at Lowndes April 12 after the resignation of head coach Jamey DuBose.

In two seasons with the Vikings, DuBose led the team to a 20-5 record and a 5-1 mark in region play with one region title.

After going 1-8 in his first season at Thomasville, Grage compiled a 53-23 record with the Bulldogs with multiple playoff appearances over the last five years.

Under Grage, the Bulldogs won region titles in 2017, 2018 and 2021. Four of his teams went to the quarterfinals or further with the Bulldogs making a state championship game appearance in 2021.

Through the spring, Grage said the most important habit he and his staff wanted to instill was the Vikings learning how to practice his way.

Now into the summer, Grage admits there's still a lot of question marks as far as the group he'll field on Friday nights.

"Coming out spring, I don't know how many more questions have been answered at this point," Grage said. "We still have a three-man quarterback competition, I believe. We still have some questions at all positions as far as who's the man and who's maybe the backup and who's going to be some of those Friday night guys. That being said, the competition for some of those positions has been phenomenal."

The Vikings' summer has consisted of padded camps, OTAs and 7-on-7s throughout June and July. The team recently practiced with Thomas County Central, Bainbridge, Lanier County and Cook.

"I think the kids have been getting after it," Grage said. "They've been so receptive to some of the changes, some of the expectations throughout this summer. We've definitely gone through some dog days where we may have been pulling a little teeth here and there but all in all, we've revamped our weight room. We kind of let it ride with what we'd been doing before. In the spring, we really focused on football and how we practiced. The major focus of this summer was getting our weight program instilled and making a difference there and they've been awesome with that — coaches and players together.

"Like I said, there's still a lot of unanswered questions. I think we need to get into full, Friday night lights-type competition to get some of those done. Those non-region games and our first scrimmage are going to be crucial, but I've loved our get after it-ness. The kids are coming in to work everyday. Is every day perfect? Absolutely not, but I think they love football. I think they love Lowndes, I love being here and we'll try to find the best guys that'll give us the best chance to win."

The Vikings went 10-3 last season, going undefeated in Region 1-7A and claiming the region championship.

Offensively, the Vikings were as potent as ever — putting up 34.6 points a night. However, defensively, the young and inexperienced Vikings were a bit of a mixed bag all season. In many games, the Vikings defense spotted opponents early deficits before buckling down and shutting teams down long enough for the offense to find its footing and climb back into games. In other games, the team would be hit with a bevy of big plays and the offense was tasked with having to save the day.

Despite their issues defensively, the Vikings won eight consecutive games and advanced all the way to the third round of the state playoffs before injuries to stars Jacurri Brown and Chase Belcher ultimately did them in a 49-7 loss to eventual state champion Collins Hill.

Brown, now a quarterback at the University of Miami, completed a stellar career for the Vikings — throwing for a career-best 2.165 yards with 23 touchdowns and only three interceptions. The dual-threat QB also rushed for 88s yards and 10 more touchdowns.

Belcher did it all for the Vikings as a wide receiver turned running back. The Northern Arizona commit rushed for 700 yards with 15 touchdowns on the ground while still managing to haul in 23 receptions for 527 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The biggest returner on offense for the Vikings is rising soon-to-be junior running back Jacarre "Smoke" Fleming.

The elusive and shifty Fleming emerged as a promising back last season, rushing for 726 yards with three 100+ yard efforts and nine touchdowns. Fleming also factored in to the Vikings' passing game with eight grabs for 80 yards and a touchdown.

While Grage is steadfast in his praise of Fleming and his talent, he has challenged his young running back to grow as the unquestioned leader of the team on the field — a role he's working every day to master.

"There's no doubt he's talented," Grage said of Fleming. "He's one of the most talented backs that I've coached in 16 years, whether it's in Moultrie, Thomasville, wherever. The talent is not a question. He checks all the boxes with catching the ball out of the backfield, pass protection — all the stuff that people don't think running backs do, he does all that well then you add in the fact that he can see things.

"He's still learning. He's continuing to grow and learn. I will say this, he's our natural leader. Even though he's only going to be a junior, he's got a lot of street cred because of all the playing time and success he's had on Friday nights in Martin Stadium and that speaks highly to his teammates. He's our natural leader. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's not so good. He's still continuing to try and grow in that form. You never have to question Jacarre in between the whistles. Obviously, we're still trying to push him to what's he going to do outside those whistles, in between plays. How good of a leader is he? How good of an energy and body language is he going to bring? Whether he likes it or not, our team is going to follow him so he's got to understand it's either good or bad and he's got to buy in to that."

Finding depth behind Fleming is something Grage and his coaching staff are working to develop. Sophomores Aalim Brown and K'Len Flannigan, whom Grage praised for having a great spring and summer, will have the opportunity to get reps behind Fleming.

"You're gonna have to have somebody that spells (Fleming) every now and then on Friday nights, especially early in the season when it's so hot out here," Grage said. "A running back's shelf life, you can only get so many hits out of them so that's where the competition lies there. I really feel like we're going to go as Jacarre goes. We're gong to ask him to do a lot...maybe even be a decoy every now and then to get some other guys some touches, but he's going to have a special year, I believe."

One ongoing storyline for Grage is a three-man quarterback battle between juniors Tate Sirmans and Brooks Best and sophomore Marvis Parrish.

While Sirmans, who also plays baseball for the Vikings, figures to be the starter at first glance, Grage likes what his other two quarterbacks bring to the table. In fact, Grage feels that Parrish may be a factor in the passing game as a receiver as the team has worked to get him reps under center and out wide this summer.

"It's really been awesome and kind of bittersweet," Grage said of the QB competition. "Tate may have come out of that spring game as the frontrunner if we were trying to play a game that night. Tate Sirmans is an upcoming junior and he's played so much baseball this summer. He hasn't missed much a beat with football. Obviously, we'd love to have him everyday and keep him in tune with what's going on, but him and Coach (Shawn) Sutton have a great relationship. Even when he was off in Atlanta or Fort Myers or wherever playing these baseball tournaments, him and Sutt would still talk and watch tape together and do things over the phone.

"When he's gone, that gives Brooks Best, an upcoming junior, and Marvis Parrish, an upcoming sophomore, unbelievable reps to get their licks in and try to take the team under their wing. All three of them just do different things and bring different skill sets. Marvis is probably the best runner, also throws a great ball but he's a sophomore so he's still learning. Brooks is the best pure pocket passer and runs better than you may think just looking at him, but he maybe has the best grasp of the offense overall and he's going to be able to throw a nice quick game and really stand in there with pressure. Then Tate is kind of the mix. He does a little bit of everything well. He throws a good deep ball. He throws a good intermediate ball. He can throw the touch ball. He can run — maybe doesn't run as well as Marvis, but when you put the whole package together, maybe he's that guy. But he's been playing something everyday for about seven months now whether it's baseball or football, so he's been going at it and burning that candle. It's still going to be an even competition. I'm still a firm believer if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have any. You've got to have a guy, but I still think that competition is going to roll itself out. If Tate's a starter, Marvis Parrish will be playing receiver somewhere and he's gotten a lot of good reps out wide. Marvis is a special athlete and we'll find a place for him to play no matter what."

In addition to the departures of Brown and Belcher, the Vikings are having to replace significant production on offense with the graduation of senior pass-catchers Khris Thomas, Justin Barron and Tate McGee.

Perhaps the team's most reliable receiver, Thomas led the team in receptions (45) and receiving yards (818) with five touchdowns last year.

Barron caught 21 balls for 313 yards and three touchdowns, while McGee had 20 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown.

Looking ahead to the fall, Kevis Thomas is one player Grage will call upon to step in and step up.

Thomas had 367 all-purpose yards last season — 301 coming on kick returns and another 40 coming on an interception.

"You can kind of shake 'em up and roll 'em out," Grage said of filling the void left by last year's senior playmakers. "Kevis is our best receiver, best DB, best kick returner — he kind of checks all those boxes. I think he's really found a new fire for football this summer. I kind of questioned a little bit in the springtime just how much he loved ball. He had great game habits, but we're trying to transition that into practice. I think he's had a really, really good summer that way. He's going to be just dynamic with the football and can score in multiple ways. We'll make sure we find different ways to get him the football and he'll flip over both ways (offense and defense)."

Other than Thomas, Ronnie Davis has emerged as a playmaker on both sides of the ball in spring and summer camp. Davis, Grage said, "really has come out of nowhere."

"He was a guy nobody really talked to me about when I got here, but he's earned the respect of his coaches and teammates," Grage said. "We actually had to sit him down a little bit in our OTA (July 20) because we looked around and said, 'That dude hasn't come off the field.' He was in all of our special teams. He played defense. He played offense. We said, 'We need Ronnie a break.' ... He's the Lowndes Viking. He's the epitome of what we look for in this program."

CJ Tomlin, an upcoming senior, played primarily at cornerback last season. This season, Grage expects the 6-foot-2, 168-pound Tomlin to contribute on the offensive side as well. Grage referred to Tomlin as "a big, long kid that has great ball skills."

Past Thomas, Davis and Tomlin, the Vikings will have a bunch of youth to work with at the skill positions. Senior McArthur Howard will split time with Thomas out wide. Sophomore Jaylin Carter, Grage said, plays every position on the field and does some good things.

Six-foot-five sophomore Aidan Sefa will factor into the passing game as well. Sefa caught four passes for 20 yards in the Vikings' spring game against Tift County. However, at 175 pounds, Grage feels the learning curve for Sefa will be more about how his body reacts to the physicality of south Georgia football.

Marlon Evans and Keylan Hicks will split time at the H-back, slot receiver spot. Grage feels both players are very dynamic. Hicks was a national champion in the 4 x 100 relay for the Vikings this summer along with Fleming. "He can stroll," Grage said of Hicks.

Grage also mentioned junior tight ends Grant Laskey and Kyree Fuller as players that are competing for significant roles in the fall.

Defensively, the Vikings allowed an uncharacteristic 27.9 points per game last season.

Of course, there are several reasons for the Concrete Curtain's decline but the biggest culprit was the massive loss in experience after losing stars Thomas Davis, T.J. Quinn, Jacques Hunter, Leon Williams and Dominique Marshall to graduation.

Returning only three starters on that side of the ball forced a lot of players into bigger roles and a trial by fire for much of the Vikings' defensive unit.

However, with bigger roles and responsibilities comes valuable experience.

"I'm excited to see how quickly we can get back on it. We put pads on Aug. 1, getting ready for that first game," Grage said. "I do think we were extremely physical in that (spring) game against Tift. There's gonna be some growing pains back there, but they're working as hard as they can. We have our players weight room; our guys that are going to contribute this year on Friday nights, and then our developmental weight room where we're going to try to get those guys ready to play at the end of the season and next year.

"There's a lot of guys that are in that players weight room that really probably should be in that developmental group, but they're going to be pushed to play because they're either extremely talented or it's just a necessity right now with some of our depth issues up top with our junior and senior class."

The Vikings are senior-laden along the defensive line with Jayden Battle, Vernon Wright and DeSean Smith. Junior outside linebacker Mekhi Crawford as well as sophomores Coleman Lewis and Johnny Bebo will play around senior Elijah Colvin, whom Grage calls "the team's heartbeat" on defense.

With Thomas, Tomlin, Evans, Carter and Davis, the Vikings boast a deep and talented unit at corner and safety with promising sophomores that Grage expects to come in and produce as well.

While the Vikings are Region 1-7A mainstays, the region got a major shake-up in the offseason.

Lowndes welcomes crosstown rival Valdosta back into their region, along with Richmond Hill next to rival Colquitt County and Camden next season.

But before the Vikings tackle region play, they'll be tested with a stiff non-region slate. Lowndes opens the season at home Aug. 20 against American Heritage followed by Florida schools Gadsden County (Aug. 27) and North Miami Beach (Sept. 2).

"It's loaded," Grage said. "That's what south Georgia football is all about. There's not gonna be any cupcakes that just roll in and we can show up and win because we're Lowndes.

"Now, as much as we'll let everybody else talk about who the opponent is that's gonna show up on Friday night, I think we're going to still buy in to the deal of American Heritage is coming in that first week then you're looking Gadsden and then you've got East Coweta and Grayson and North Miami Beach then Dunbar's Homecoming right in the middle of region, which is awesome."

The Vikings go on the road to face East Coweta Sept. 16 before hosting 7A powerhouse Grayson Sept. 23 to close out the majority of their non-region schedule.

From there, the Vikings will have an open week before hosting the Valdosta Wildcats in the Winnersville Classic. The next week, Dunbar (Fla.) comes to town for Homecoming Oct. 14. The Vikings round out the regular season with region opponents as they travel to Colquitt Oct. 21 followed by a home game against Richmond Hill Oct. 28 and a road game at Camden Nov. 4.

"If we can sit there and watch tape and focus on our guys and look back, I'm a firm believer that a lot of high school games are lost. Very few of them are actually won or two teams play great. Usually, as a coach, you come in Saturday morning and say it was that fumble or that lack of third-down execution or that red zone opportunity we didn't take advantage of," Grage said. "We want to go take advantage of all those. The schedule's going to be crazy. I'm just excited to get all the people in the stands and actually feel the big time Friday night lights at Martin Stadium. We're going to be exciting, we're going to hit on a couple of big balls but there's going to be kids that step up and make a play when they've got to make a play and hopefully it's going to be a very physical brand of football.

"We're going to be dealing with some adversity, riding those highs and lows but just make sure no matter who's across that field, if we take care of our business and we play as hard as we can and as well as we can in those basic fundamentals that nobody else likes to do, that's what we've got to be about and then hopefully in the end, we come out on the right side of the scoreboard."

Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.