By Rubin E. Grant
The Hoover Bucs are not just hungering to get back on top in Class 7A.
Their desire is much stronger than that.
“It’s not about being hungry,” Hoover coach Josh Niblett said. “We’re starving. When you’re starving it means you’ve got to have it. We’re starving to be where we need to be and that’s the standard we’ve set.”
Hoover lost to Thompson in the 2018 Class 7A in their quest for a three-peat as state champions.
“I think it’s harder to stay at the top than to get to the top, and I think for myself we took some things for granted,” Niblett said. “We are going to own who we were and own who we are going to be.”
Senior quarterback Robby Ashford said reclaiming the Class 7A championship is their top priority.
“We’re coming back this season with a different mindset,” Ashford said. “We’re not used to losing in the semifinals.”
Ashford, the top-rated quarterback prospect in the state, will play a starring role if the Bucs ascend back to the top. In his first season as the starter last year, he threw for 2,542 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions and rushed for 623 yards and seven more touchdowns.
“Robby is a dynamic kid,” Niblett said. “He’s a dual-threat quarterback.”
Junior Josh Lundy will back up Ashford.
“We feel good about him,” Niblett said. “He’s been a guy who’s been in our program. He’s experienced. He understands our offense.
“We’ve got some younger guys we’ll continue to develop,” he said, mentioning sophomores Walker Berryman and Evan Reeder.
The Bucs have to replace Larry McCammon, who was their primary ballcarrier the past two seasons, but senior Anthony Hayes and juniors Dylan Pauley and Massiah Tolen are ready to step up at running back.
“I’m excited about those guys,” Niblett said. “They’re bigger backs, except for Massiah, and they each bring something different to the table. They play hard and they’re capable of making big plays.”
Juniors Will Whisenhunt and Keyvon Lavender will play fullback.
The Bucs’ top two receivers from last year are now at SEC schools — George Pickens (Georgia) and Shedrick Jackson (Auburn). Pickens was a man among boys at times last season for the Bucs.
“I don’t think you ever replace a guy like George,” Niblett said. “He’s a once-in-a-generation player.”
Niblett said the Bucs will have a different group of receivers this fall.
“This is probably our most inexperienced spot, but we have some guys we’re trying to develop,” Niblett said.
He listed seniors Jamari Buye, Ray Hamilton, Cooper Tullo and Colby Davis as receivers who gained some experience last year. Some younger receivers looking for playing time are juniors Malik Thomas, Jalen Jones and Joseph Buffet.
Niblett said he also expects freshman R.J. Hamilton “to make a lot of plays.”
The Bucs will employ sophomore Jabari Gaines and junior Dawson Rye at tight end.
Niblett likes what the Bucs have up front on offense.
“We’ve got some continuity coming back,” he said. “The biggest thing is they’ve got to continue to grow and get better, but they have a chance to be special.”
Seniors David Bodden – a 6-foot-2, 290-pound center/guard – Harrison Ozgun, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound tackle – and Luke Godwin – a 6-foot-1, 254-pound guard – will anchor the line.
A few new guys expected to join them on the line are juniors Nick Paradise and Adam Lepkowski, and senior Juan Sparks.
“We’ve got some young guys coming along like Jordan Washington, who will be a sophomore,” Niblett said.
The Bucs have three seniors anchoring the defensive line — ends Joseph Davis and Sam Suswam and nose guard Drew Tountasakis.
“I really like the edge they bring,” Niblett said. “We’re trying to find ways to add pieces, but I like the energy they have, and I like the way they play.”
The Bucs have four experienced players returning at linebacker, led by senior Jeptha Kilgore, who started at middle linebacker as a sophomore. The others are juniors Josh Smith and Marcus Williams, and senior Aarren Smith. Sophomores Corey Warren and Carter Milliron will provide depth.
“We need to play consistent and we need to be physical,” Niblett said.
Niblett said the Bucs’ secondary is solid, but they need to create some depth.
Seniors Seth Parker and Codey Martin return at cornerback and in back of them are juniors Jacob Johnson and Jamal Denson.
Safety Kory Chapman is the quarterback of the secondary. Junior Matthew Palmer will play free safety. Senior Cedric Smith and sophomore Paul Thompson are in reserve.
Junior Constantine Hontzas is set to handle the punting and kicking chores, inheriting a spot where the Bucs excelled for several years with Barret Pickering, now at Nebraska, and Will Reichard, now at Alabama.
Milliron and junior Carter Short are battling to replace Ben Hendrix as the team’s long snapper.
Hoover will compete in challenging Class 7A, Region 3. The Bucs will open the season Aug. 23 at the Cramton Bowl against reigning 7A champ Central-Phenix City. The following week, Hoover will travel to Milton, Georgia, to play Cocoa, Florida, as part of the Freedom Bowl.