While five of the six head football coaches in the Tri-County area (Dixie, Levy and Gilchrist counties) will be new, Joey Whittington is back for his 10th season as head coach of the Bell Bulldogs.
Last year, the ‘Dogs (4-6) almost won as many games as they had the previous two seasons combined (2-8 in 2020 and 3-7 in 2019).
“We were able to get out of that little slump of only winning a couple of games,” Whittington said. “I’ll take the growth. The goal is to win more games so we can get into the playoffs. We’ve been right there at the door but haven’t been able to go in.”
The Bulldogs graduated 13 seniors last season and have a total of four starters returning on both sides of the ball.
This offseason, Bell knew it would be changing its quarterback out as Hayden Brown graduated. Brown threw for 951 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior.
Zackary Powell moves over from wide receiver, but he was able to get some playing time as a junior and will take over as the starter under center.
“It went very seamless for a change at quarterback,” Whittington said. “He’s a good team player, a good team leader.”
Powell, who had a team-leading 15 receptions as a junior with 171 yards and two touchdowns, said he is prepared for his new role and he’s excited about this year’s offense.
“It wasn’t hard (transition to QB), but it also wasn’t easy,” said Powell, who noted he’s good at reading defenses. “During practice last year I would go in as the scout team QB, so I knew my role for this year. I think we’re going to be really explosive this year. During the spring game, we had some big, explosive plays running the ball, throwing the ball, and I really think we’re going to take charge of that.”
Running back Connor Hastings returns after rushing 62 times for 332 yards (5.4 yards per carry) as a junior. He also caught 13 passes for 160 yards.
“He’s pretty electric with the ball in his hands so we knew we were going to try and focus around those two,” Whittington said.
Hastings, who plays basketball, is a starter on the baseball team, and participates in weightlifting, is also one of the leaders on defense.
“I think it’s going to be a lot better season,” he said. “We’ve been working on chemistry.”
The other two starters returning are on the offensive line so Bell will have three new starters up front.
Defensively the Bulldogs, who return two defensive linemen, are changing things up and going to more of a four-man front.
“I thought the D-line took to it very well in the spring,” Whittington said. “We’re young at linebacker this year. They have to keep growing for us to be as successful as you want to be on that side of the ball.”
Elliot Spears, who led the team with 71 tackles and added four tackles for a loss, will be a three-year starter at middle linebacker.
“I think we’re going to be good,” said the rising senior, who will also play left guard. “We’ve got good athletes. We just need to get along with each other and do our job.”
A freshman and a sophomore will be starting alongside Spears.
Hastings is back at safety after recording 51 tackles, two interceptions, and recovering two fumbles. He also forced a fumble.
Powell will also play defensive back.
“Not a whole lot of returners but the good news is we had a lot of young guys step up,” Whittington said. “We’re going to end up with four sophomores starting and freshmen starting.”
Whittington said he’s been reaching out to more athletes on campus.
“Kids who have either maybe run track or play basketball and I said, ‘come give football a try,’ and then we end up finding a spot for them,” he said. “We try to push a lot of our kids to play multiple sports. As a small school we kind of have to encourage them to play multiple sports so we can be as good as we can be in all of our sports.”
Bell is in the rural division of Class 1A, so their new designation is Class 1R-Region 3. This year MaxPreps’ strength of schedule will determine who makes the postseason.
“Last year (defending state champion) Madison County moved out of our region but they’re back in this year so that’s a great change for us, but other than that it’s not a dynamic difference for us,” Whittington said.
The Bulldogs get Trenton back on the schedule in the season opener after a 1-year hiatus, plus they will travel to Wewahitchka. They have added Seven Rivers Christian (Lecanto) and Riverside (Trenton) but Branford, St. Francis Catholic and Aucilla Christian (Monticello) are back on the schedule.
In order for this to be a good season Whittington said they “have to hit the ground running.”
“This team has a natural chemistry to it,” he said. “I think if we can be successful early that could snowball for us.”