Thursday Night Lights: No. 2 Blazers kick off 2022 season against Hawks

·6 min read

Aug. 31—VALDOSTA — A rare occasion.

The No. 2 ranked Valdosta State football team opens the 2022 season against the Keiser University Hawks (1-0) Thursday night — the first Thursday night opener for the Blazers since 1993.

The Blazers went 12-2 last season, falling to Ferris State in the NCAA Division II national championship.

Heading into the new season, the Blazers are more motivated than ever to return to Texas for another crack at a national title.

"We're excited," VSU head coach Tremaine Jackson said. "I'm really excited for our players. They've worked extremely hard since the day we touched down here — like they've always done. Now, to see them go through camp, grow as a team, get better as a team through this August time, I'm eager to see them play against somebody else. We're kind of at that point like everybody else is now — man, let's play against somebody else that we don't know, that we don't have to be in the locker room with so we can compete and see where we are. We're really ready for that point."

Jackson, who celebrated his 39th birthday on Tuesday, will be looking to lead the Blazers to their first victory under his leadership as the 11th head coach in program history.

The Blazers return Second Team All-Gulf South Conference and D2CCA Second Team All-Region performer Ivory Durham at quarterback for his senior season.

As a first-time starter at QB last season, Durham threw for 3,425 yards — good for seventh in the country — with 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Durham was one of three Blazers to rush over 1,000 yards last season, finishing with 128 carries for 1,012 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.

Seth McGill and Jamar Thompkins, the other two 1,000-yard rushers from last season, are also back as two of the few holdovers from the Blazers' 2018 national title team.

The key to the Blazers getting back to the national championship game rests in the amount of talent around the Blazers' big three on offense and a bevy of new faces on the defensive side of the ball as the Blazers added more than 50 new players to the mix.

"The amount of new guys and how they don't feel like new guys," Jackson said when asked what has stuck out to him about his team after preseason camp. "They feel like they've been here. I think that happened in the summer without coaches, when guys couldn't be with us so they had to be with each other. The amount of stories of guys letting somebody use their couch for a day until their apartment gets ready, we're starting to hear a lot of those stories now and you can tell that they spent that intimate time together to where they really got to know their teammates.

"Any time you bring over 50 new guys in, it's one of those concerns. Just seeing them grow together, seeing how our offense is coming together even though we had a lot of pieces come back, we still have new pieces that we've added and they've jelled. Then, defensively, we're starting 10 new guys that didn't start Game 1 a year ago. Seeing them come together with guys from around the country to add to guys that are already here, it's just been a fun process."

With 10 new defensive starters this season, two of Jackson's goals heading into the season are to set a standard on defense and show a much-improved ability to stop the run, which proved to be a critical weakness down the stretch against West Florida in the regular season finale and Ferris State in the national championship game.

"Most people are looking for a score. I'm looking for the standard in the way we do things defensively, offensively and on special teams," Jackson said. "From a defensive standpoint, we have to get better versus the run. That ain't no secret. Everybody in Valdosta knows that. We have to be more physical."

Playing on a Thursday for the first time since 2015 presents a unique challenge for the Blazers, who will play an 11-game schedule with no open week this season.

"It's our open week because we don't play on a Saturday," Jackson told reporters during his media availability Tuesday. "We've got to treat it like an open week and try to get that rest and recovery that you normally would get. ... This is normal for me. Being in Division II as long as I have, being in the midwest in Division II, there's no bye weeks up there — people are playing 11 games straight, so it's probably more normal for me than it is for our fans.

"We needed that. We needed as many opportunities as we can to try to do what we want to do. To add an 11th game, to add another Division II opponent, was really a good deal and our players have taken that on. ... It's better when you start the season (on Thursday). When I was at Texas State, we played two on a Thursday in the middle of the season. That can throw you off because you don't get as much prep time for the opponent coming off a Saturday game. We like it when we have all of August to focus on that one opening opponent then get a couple days of recovery and relaxation to get started while we're waiting on our opponent to play their next game. We've seen it more beneficial that way and that's why we did it the way we did it."

The Hawks, currently No. 7 in the NAIA Top 25, defeated the Warner University Royals 44-7 to open their season last Saturday.

The Hawks finished with 538 yards of total offense, earning 27 first downs and going a perfect 5 for 5 in the red zone.

Shea Spencer completed 22 of 28 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns. Jaylen Arnold led the passing attack for Keiser with five catches for 79 yards and two scores while Myles Henderson added four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown.

On the ground, Keiser was led by Marques Burgess' 18 carries for 64 yards and a touchdown. Jaden Meizinger had 61 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.

Defensively, the Hawks were particularly effective against the run — holding the Royals to -2 yards rushing on 17 carries while allowing just five first downs all game.

Overall, the Hawks held the Royals to just 121 yards offensively and forced nine punts on the day.

"They're well-coached — I think their coach has been there all four years of their program," Jackson said. "They're No. 7 in the country in NAIA and I've coached NAIA. There ain't any slouches in the NAIA. Our defensive coordinator won a couple of NAIA national championships, so we understand that the level of football that they play is just like ours and they're in South Florida on top of that. We've got a lot of kids on our team from South Florida so we know what that athlete is.

"They're well-coached, they can run, they're big so we've got our challenges out in front of us. We've got to match their intensity and be ready to go when they come here."

Kickoff for Thursday's game is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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