Joey Whittington is the dean of football coaches in the tri-county area as he enters his ninth season as the head coach of the Bell Bulldogs.
Last season the Bulldogs struggled, finishing just 2-7, which included a loss at Union County (Lake Butler) in the Class 1A regional quarterfinals when all teams that opted into the postseason were guaranteed a playoff spot due to COVID-19.
Now the challenge for the Bulldogs is replacing the 18 seniors who graduated. That is a huge number, especially for a school of Bell’s size.
The ‘Dogs only return “about three or four starters on each side of the ball,” according to Whittington. However, they’re going to be seniors and juniors, so Bell isn’t necessarily young, just not as experienced.
“I’m excited to see their growth,” Whittington said. “How fast we can grow will determine how fast our season works out.”
Last year, there was no spring football. Whittington said that having spring ball this year helped his team tremendously.
“It was crucial for us this year because we’re still in the learning stages,” he said. “We’re changing up our offense this year and to be able to have a spring season and have those practices was beneficial to our program. We had some rough spots in the spring game but to have those three or four weeks in the fall is going to be great for us going into the fall season.”
Bell must replace most of its offensive backfield, like Caden Hastings, who led the team with 764 yards rushing and nine rushing touchdowns. He also played quarterback for most of the season, and he was all over the field defensively, leading the team with 80 tackles in 2020.
The ‘Dogs also lost fullback Jordan Hernandez to graduation. He was second on the team with 455 yards on the ground and also added four rushing scores.
The change in personnel led to some of the tweaks to this year’s offense.
“We’re going to spread it a little bit,” Whittington said. “It hurts me to say that, but we’re going to try and throw the ball a few more times than we ever had.”
Hayden Brown took over at quarterback for the last couple of games last year as a junior and will be back as the starter for his senior year. He said that experience was vital.
“It helped me a lot,” he said. “It gave me some experience. It helped me see the field. I need to work on running the ball, being more mobile in the pocket, and things like that.”
Seniors Ben Dozier (5’8, 250 lbs.) and Waylen McCumber give the Bulldogs experience on the offensive line, while senior Colby Herring (6’1, 317 lbs.) is a returning starter on the defensive line.
Dozier, who will play center and defensive tackle, missed a year at the center position after playing center as a freshman.
“Just having that junior year and playing center again gave me that experience that is going to help me out this year,” he said. “Getting back out there in the spring gave us a look ahead at what we’ll be working on. We’re just trying to figure out who fits where and who can do what and at what position.”
Herring will play on both sides of the line, but it’s his first time on the offensive side since J.V.
“I’m getting back in the groove of it now,” said Herring, who noted defense is more natural for him. “I’m starting to remember what I was supposed to do and all my old habits. We’re good on the defensive side.”
Junior Connor Hastings, Caden’s younger brother, will help fill the void in the offensive backfield.
Bell will also have a few basketball players helping out at wide receiver, so Whittington is “kind of excited to see how that goes.”
“Multi-sport athletes at a school our size, we’ve been trying to preach it,” he said. “I think we have six basketball players that are coming out this year and some years we don’t have that number, so that’s helping with our quick turnaround of athletes. That’s also what led to the change of us wanting to throw the ball around.”
Bell, which will compete in Class 1A-Region 3, benefits from a schedule that includes three of its first four games at home.
The Bulldogs will open up the regular season at home on August 27 against Franklin County (Eastpoint).
2021 Bell football schedule
Aug. 27 vs. Franklin County (Eastpoint)
Sept. 3 vs. Keystone Heights
Sept. 10 at Branford
Sept. 17 vs. Taylor (Pierson)
Sept. 24 at First Academy (Leesburg)
Oct. 1 at Interlachen
Oct. 8 at Saint Francis Catholic (Gainesville)
Oct. 15 vs. Umatilla
Oct. 22 at Aucilla Christian (Monticello)
Oct. 29 BYE
Nov. 5 vs. Providence School (Jacksonville)