Rudy Free sees more continuity in the Kinston Bulldogs because he is seeing more familiar faces.
The Bulldogs have nine seniors and eight juniors, most with valuable experience gained in a 3-7 season that was Free’s inaugural campaign at Kinston last year.
“Those senior and junior classes, we’ve got a good number of players and that always helps when you’ve got older kids. It’s hard to win with a bunch of freshmen out there sometimes,” Free said.
The Bulldogs return seven starters on offense and seven on defense – most of them playing both ways. He said that experience is crucial in a season without a spring.
“We’ve got a lot of guys with some experience,” Free said. “There’s been a big carryover since we started back doing some things this summer. I think that’s going to be beneficial for us, just to have some guys that know what we’re doing.”
Kinston will go with new starters at quarterback and wingback, but an experienced offensive line should be the Bulldogs’ strength. Four starters are back up front – including Free’s twin sons John and David, juniors who are returning at the guard spots. Jaken Davis is a senior returning starter at center and senior Steed Windham is back at a tackle spot.
The new starter, senior Gunnar Fleming, fought injuries nearly all of last season but had a very good summer, the coach said.
“You can have all the skill guys you want, but up front is where it really starts,” Free said. “Football hasn’t changed a whole bunch. Sometimes we think it has, but you’ve still got to be able to block and tackle. If you’ve got a good offensive line I think you’re going to be OK.”
Asked about coaching his twins, Free said last season was their first full year starting.
“They probably caught it a little harder from me last year,” the coach said. “They know me and know what I expect out of them. The rest of them are probably going to get a little dose of what they got last year. But they’re hard workers. They’ve been around it their whole life.”
The Bulldogs can run a lot of two-tight end looks out of their Gun Wing offense and both of those – sophomore Cale Sumblin and junior JW Mikel – are returning.
“Cale started all year as a freshman. He’s a three-sport guy,” Free said of the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Sumblin. “A lot of times you see freshmen have a hard time getting down inside and playing on the line of scrimmage. We run two tight ends so a lot of times they’re extra linemen for us. It’s hard.
“You don’t find as many freshmen that are ready for that, but he was ready for it. He could handle it and did a good job. He also caught several touchdown passes. Most of the passes he caught were for touchdowns.”
Running back Addison Hudson was a pleasant surprise last season. Free said he might have been the Bulldogs’ most improved player.
“When I first got there, he came to me and said, ‘I want to be the running back.’ I said, ‘Well, you’ll have a chance,’” Free recalled.
“You just never know. In the junior high program he had played some on the offensive line. I think he had 1,250 yards last year for us and just was a really solid back.”
Two big vacancies are at quarterback and wingback. The quarterback likely will be senior Ayden Wallace, who was a defensive starter last year before he got hurt against Brantley in Week 2 and was lost for the year.
“He’s a good athlete, basketball player, got pretty good size, can run and throw it,” Free said. “We may rotate some at quarterback, but he’s probably going to be the guy right now.
"Cale (Sumblin) actually played quarterback in junior high last year. He may play a little both. In the offense we run, they’re going to be running a little bit. You’ve got to make sure you have another one.”
Levi Massey projects as a new starter at fullback, although the battle continues there.
Another key will be at wingback, where the Bulldogs must replace Colby Copeland.
“We’ve got to replace a guy that gained about 1,500 in the wingback position,” Free said.
Senior Hunter Hughes has big shoes to fill, but Free said Hughes was a defensive playmaker at cornerback a year ago.
“Hunter was very much improved as a defensive player last year,” the coach said. “He was probably one of the most improved on defense. He might have been our best secondary guy.”
Hughes also will play corner again this season. A trio of linebackers are back – senior Wallace, junior Mikel and sophomore Sumblin.
“Some of those will move around and play difference spots, but JW Mikel, he played a pretty good bit all year,” Free said. “He’s a little undersized but he plays hard. Cale is more of an outside linebacker, but his length and his size are really good. And Ayden’s more of a hybrid safety/linebacker type. It hurt us defensively when he got hurt last year.”
Windham (tackle) and David Free (end) return to the defensive line. John Free is a returning linebacker.
“We rotate those big guys because they’re offensive linemen,” the coach said. “We try to keep them fresh. We’ll rotate them in on defense.”
Jeb Crosby could be one of the safeties. He played a lot at the end of last season as a freshman. Trae Hilburn will be the corner opposite Hughes.
Jace Reeves (end) and Fleming (tackle) will work on the defensive line. Konner Walker will be in the linebacking corps.
Sumblin projects as the team’s punter and John Free will likely do the placekicking. He’s a straight-on kicker with the old-fashioned square-toed shoe.
Kinston stays in 1A with Brantley as the “top dog.” Florala and Georgiana will be tough. With Samson moving into the region from Class 2A, Free said “there are no easy games.”
He hopes the Bulldogs will close out games better.
“I’ve been harping on our guys that we’ve got to learn how to finish,” Free said. “We had three games last year with the lead in the fourth quarter and lost. If we take care of business there, we’re 6-4.
“We’ve got to do a better job of finishing. Some games we ran out of steam. I think we’ve got more depth this year and I think that’ll help us.”
BULLDOGS AT A GLANCE
Head coach: Rudy Free (2nd year at Kinston, 3-7; 4th year as a head coach, 10-30)
2019 record: 3-7 overall, 3-4 in Class 1A, Region 2
2019 results: at Samson (L, 10-14); Brantley # (L, 13-55); at Elba # (L, 14-40); Red Level # (W, 54-12); Zion Chapel (L, 30-34); at McKenzie # (W, 55-34); Pleasant Home # (W, 31-7); at Georgiana # (L, 28-42); at Florala # (L, 19-56); Cottonwood (L, 13-35)
Points scored/per game: 267/26.7
Points allowed/per game: 329/32.9
Returning offensive starters (7): C Jaken Davis (Sr., 6-0, 300); OT Steed Windham (Sr., 6-0, 270); G John Free (Jr., 5-8, 215); G David Free (Jr., 5-8, 215); TE Cale Sumblin (So., 6-4, 215); TE JW Mikel (Jr., 5-11, 145); RB Addison Hudson (Sr., 6-1, 165).
Returning defensive starters (7): DT Steed Windham (Sr., 6-0, 270); DE David Free (Jr., 5-8, 215); LB JW Mikel (Jr., 5-11, 145); LB Cale Sumblin (So., 6-4, 215); LB Ayden Wallace (Sr., 6-1, 180); LB John Free (Jr., 5-8, 215); CB Hunter Hughes (Sr., 5-9, 140)
Aug. 21 at Houston Academy
Aug. 28 at Zion Chapel
Sept. 4 Brantley #
Sept. 11 at Red Level #
Sept. 18 at Georgiana #
Sept. 25 Open
Oct. 2 Florala #
Oct. 9 McKenzie #
Oct. 16 at Pleasant Home #
Oct. 23 Samson #
Oct. 30 Open
# Class 1A, Region 1 games
Follow Ken Rogers on Twitter @debamabeat.
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