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ROAD TO KICKOFF: Loaded Lovejoy looking toward another title run

Photo by Derrick Mahone 
Coach Al Hughes enters his 12th season at the helm of the Lovejoy football. He says his team’s attention to detail and fundamentals will be the difference between good and great for the Wildcats.

Photo by Derrick Mahone Coach Al Hughes enters his 12th season at the helm of the Lovejoy football. He says his team’s attention to detail and fundamentals will be the difference between good and great for the Wildcats.

Lovejoy at a glance

Last year: 14-1

Summer progress: The Wildcats participated in five different 7-on-7 summer passing leagues — not including their own — and won several, including one at the University of Virginia. Coach Al Hughes said the 7-on-7 drills gave his three new starters in the secondary plenty of valuable reps against his, and other, talented corps of receivers. “Our DBs probably covered 400-500 pass routes this summer, which also means our wide receivers ran 400-500 routes,” Hughes said. “They got their money’s worth.”

Work to do: So what does a 14-1, state-runner up squad that boasts a defense that gave up less than a touchdown (4.8 points) a game have to improve on? Plenty, if you talk to Hughes. Though he said he likes where his team is right now, the Wildcats are working hard on stressing fundamentals and not taking any backward steps as the season kicks off in less than two weeks.

Emerging player: Sophomore center Randy Robinson was one of only two offensive linemen to ever start as a freshman for a Hughes coached Lovejoy team. Hughes believes Robinson will take the next steps necessary to anchor a unit that averages close to 300 pounds per player.

Last season it was unfinished business.

After an undefeated 2010 season that seemed to end prematurely in the first round of the playoffs, Lovejoy set a goal: To make the 2011 playoffs and play for a state championship.

The Wildcats did that by going 14-0 in the regular season and playoffs, only to lose 22-7 to Tucker in the Class AAAA finals.

So yes, technically the aforementioned business was finished. But if Lovejoy were to provide an encore performance of last season — complete with another undefeated season and state title game appearance — coach Al Hughes still won’t be satisfied.

“Our motto this year,” Hughes said, “Is to win the last one.”

And Hughes isn’t talking about the last regular season game either.

He speaks as a coach who has every expectation that his Wildcats will return to the Georgia Dome at season’s end and come out with a different result.

“No shortcuts, no excuses,” said Hughes who is entering his 12th season as head coach. “Last year, we didn’t win that last one, and it left a bitter taste in all of our mouths.”

And considering who is returning to the Wildcats roster this season, another state title run is certainly not out of the question.

Offensively, the Wildcats are loaded as they return eight starters, including all-state and Georgia Tech commit Travis Custis at running back.

Custis rushed for 1,839 yards and 30 touchdowns in an uncharacteristically run-heavy Lovejoy attack. Hughes, who makes no bones about his desire to spread defenses out and throw the ball, said his change in philosophy in 2011 was done partly because of inexperience at quarterback and receiver.

Senior quarterback Alejandro Bennifield transferred over from Jonesboro last year and was a first-year starter. The receiving corps, though talented, was also green.

Not so, this year.

After a summer full of 7-on-7 passing league successes, Bennifield, a Tennessee-Chattanooga commit, had time to learn and gel with a bevy of skill position fire power, including tight end and Auburn commit A.J. Jackson and a pair of 6-foot-4 receivers in senior JuMichael Ramos and sophomore speedster Preston Williams.

“We’re going to throw it around this year,” Hughes said. “We’re going to get back to playing Lovejoy football.”

But when the Wildcats do decide to feed its all-state running back, Custis will have good girth to run behind.

Across the offensive line, Lovejoy is huge, averaging right at 300 pounds per player and returning all but two players from last year. Center Randy Robinson and 6-foot-3, 300-pound tackle Justin Brown will be impressive, Hughes said.

With so many weapons on offense, Hughes feels like his biggest dilemma might be keeping everyone happy.

“You’ve only got one football and it will be a problem for us to get everybody touches,” he said. “But I’d rather have that problem than the alternative.”

Eight starters also return for a defense that gave up just under five points a game in 2011. The secondary took a hit by losing Rico McWilliams and Jermaine Hough, but Hughes is excited about transfer cornerbacks Cimwon Whitehead (Washington), and Terrell Brown (Banneker).

Safety El Malik Roberson is the defensive backfield’s lone returning starter, while Travis Custis’ cousin Montrell Custis will line up at the other safety position.

Linebacker Eugene Fuller, who has sat out some of fall camp with a broken bone in his foot, should be ready to go by the time Lovejoy kicks off its season August 31 against Mundy’s Mill. And the defensive line appears in good hands with rush end Zane Fields and nose tackle Nathaniel Norwood.

The Wildcats may find the road to another state championship berth a little tougher this year with its move to Class AAAAAA and back-to-back contests at Colquitt County — which lost to eventual champion Grayson last year in the semifinals — and home against Alpharetta.

Hughes said he is aware of the challenges a new region and new opponents will bring, but that won’t deter his focus.

“We definitely know who Colquitt and those guys are,” Hughes said, “But we mostly worry about Lovejoy. And if we worry about Lovejoy, everything else takes care of itself.”

Custis agreed with his coach.

“I think we’re more hungry this year,” he said. “For our 33 seniors, this is the only time we’re going to be able to put this together and get it done. Moving up to 6-A will be tougher, but if we stay focused, we’re going to get it done.”