JC Bulldogs wrap up productive spring

Mar. 30—Spring sounds, looks, and smells a little different at Georgia Military College's football practice fields down near the Oconee River.

Sure there are birds chirping, plants blooming, and there's a seasonal fragrance on the air. But pads have also been popping, cleats have been chewing up turf, and sweat has been accumulating as the GMC junior college football team just wrapped up its spring practice period Thursday. Head coach Rob Manchester, his staff, and about 70 players — a mix of returning sophomores and walk-ons new to the program — hit the field for 12 days over the last three weeks to make their first preparations for the fall 2024 NJCAA football season.

"We didn't go full pads or tackle to the ground the whole time, but we've gotten really good work in in shells (helmets and shoulder pads)," Manchester said Thursday. "I feel like our guys that were here last year have definitely gotten better. That's all you can ask for in the spring."

GMC is coming off a 7-4 campaign in 2023 that saw the team win three of its last four games and wind up 11th in the final NJCAA rankings. Fifty-five players are back, including dual-threat QB Chip Cooper of Worth County, Ga., enough offensive lineman to fill out a unit, a starting linebacker in Jonathan Wylly (39 total tackles in '23), and defensive backs Jakyri Jones (one INT) and Jacorey Walker (one INT, three pass break-ups).

Manchester said his coordinators Dustin Ramsey (defense) and Leland Ready (offense) feel good about the first unit their respective sides have been able to trot out this spring, it's depth that's the question mark. That question should get answered this summer when the program welcomes in a whopping 100 new signees, an all-time high.

"We're definitely looking forward to the reinforcements coming in," said Manchester. "It'll be a long summer, but it'll be good. We've got a lot of freshmen we've got to get ready, more than we've ever had."

Many junior college rosters around the country are trending upward in terms of numbers thanks to the NCAA's more lax transfer portal rules. Major college football coaches are filling holes on their teams through the portal rather than traditional high school recruiting, leaving some really talented athletes without a college home. That's where schools like GMC come into play.

Junior colleges are also able to bring in a different caliber of student-athlete now due to the portal. Used to, JC athletics were almost exclusively for non-qualifiers, or players who didn't have the grades to make a Division I program. Now Manchester says about half of his massive incoming freshman class could qualify, but the FBS-level roster spots just aren't available anymore.

Speaking of roster makeup, the Bulldogs aren't all returning sophomores and signed freshmen. A few were also gathered as walk-ons in January through GMC's recruiting combine where athletes are allowed to come in and show coaches what they've got. One good find through that avenue has been Patterson Moore, a guy Manchester said can play multiple positions in the defensive backfield.

"He really had a good spring," the head coach added.

GMC will need talented players like Moore, the returners, and new freshmen for what will likely be another daunting schedule in '24. Included on the slate is two-time defending national champ Iowa Western, who beat the 'Dogs 26-10 in Iowa last year, and Utah's Snow College, a matchup that resulted in a 33-30 overtime loss on Davenport Field in 2023. The GMC head coach is looking forward to good home environments this season since his team is made up almost exclusively of players from the Peach State.

"Hopefully we can put a little run together and see what happens," Manchester said. "You never know."

This year is a slight departure from previous springs. Rather than practicing in April or May, the Bulldogs wrapped up the special practice period prior to spring break. Players will return from the week off and hit the new Ramsey Family Training Facility hard for a couple of months before welcoming in the freshmen this summer.