A new day has dawned at Commerce High School.
The Tigers have a new head coach in Mark Hollars, and a fresh roster following the departure of over 20 players from a team that finished 11-2 and ended Commerce's 17-year region championship drought.
Hollars isn't necessarily worried about having to replace those former stars. One thing he's learned about Commerce since coming to town is that the Tigers have a rich tradition and players grow up wanting to add to that tradition.
"Coming here, I knew this was a football specialist community and everything I've seen has enforced that," Hollars said. "The kids here have worked hard and they grew up waiting for their opportunity to prove themselves. Yes, we have lost a great senior class. yes, we lost a lot of kids who played on Friday nights. We're a little young right now in terms of experience.
"A lot of these kids have waited their whole lives to put that helmet on and go out there. I think the key is that when you have a younger team, you have to keep getting better. We have to improve every week. As kids gain experience, you learn from that and you have to continue to grow and get better."
Commerce's offense was decimated in the offseason. Tight end Jake Frates, and offensive linemen Payton Freeman, Bo Childers and William Suber all graduated, while running back Sammy Brown and quarterback Trey Huff transferred.
Brown's departure means senior running back Dreylan Martin will assume a larger role on this year's team. Martin rushed for 859 yards with 12 tackles last season. However, Huff leaves Commerce without an experienced quarterback. Landon Bunn and Trey Garnto are in the midst of a battle to determine the starting quarterback entering week one.
The offensive line is being rebuilt around returning starters Mason Gaddis and Lambdin Hardy. Gaddis led the 2020 squad with 24 pancake blocks and he was tied for second with a percent grade-out.
Perhaps the biggest key for Commerce this season is getting stronger in the box on defense. Childers was a huge part of the Tigers' defense as a defensive end. He made 52 tackles, three sacks and was a part of five fumbles. Also gone from last year's defensive line is Elijah Burns who led the team with seven sacks.
Commerce lost its three leading linebackers as well. Brown was just as potent on defense as he was on offense, while Hunter Nunn and Grey Holbrook combined for 170 tackles.
On top of replacing four of the leaders in the front seven, Commerce is also making changes on defense schematically. Hollars and his staff are installing their 5-2 defense
"We have not grasped all the fundamentals of how we want to play that defense," Hollars said. "We've seen tremendous improvement. I think we'll get better with that. I think the kids have done a good job understanding the fundamentals.
"It is different, it's the same defense in a lot of ways but the techniques are different."
All the reloading Commerce has to do could lead to an exciting battle for the Region 8-A Public Championship. The Tigers won the crown last year thanks to an 11-point win over Washington-Wilkes and and 10-point win over Lincoln County. Both are programs with numerous region and state titles, and are led by two of the best high school coaches in Georgia of the past 20 years.
Sid Fritts, a second-year coach at Washington-Wilkes, has won eight region titles at Elbert County, Rome and Vidalia. Lincoln County coach Lee Comskis also won a pair of region titles at Vidalia. Chomskis is entering his second year in Lincolnton.
"I'm new to the region, not to Georgia high school football so I'm familiar with some of the schools," Hollars said. "I've never played against one of these schools, but when you study the history and look at the traditions of the programs, obviously there's a tremendous amount of respect for the coaches and the programs.
"Right now, we are not looking beyond Banks County. All of our energy is on Banks County. We have to keep improving every week before region play. We're a young team experience wise, so the only way you're going to get that experience is to play games. What do you do with that experience? Do we grow up, do we mature. That's what's going to be critical. We have five games to get our sea legs."
•Region: 8-A Public
•All-time record: 629-312-20
•Accomplishments: two state championships, 18 region championships
•Head coach: Mark Hollars (first year at Commerce, 0-0; sixth year overall, 30-25)
•2020 record: 11-2
•Key players: Dreyan Martin, Sr., RB-CB; Kemanni Horne, Sr., DL; Colton Hill, Jr., DL; Landon Worley, Sr., SS; Wesley Stilly, Sr., WR-DL; Caleb Lovin, Jr., RB; Jack Fagan, Jr., RB; Malachi Shockey, Jr., RB; Ryan Cooper, Sr., WR-FS; Mason Gaddis, Sr., OG; Lambdin Hardy, Sr., C; Hampton Hutto, Jr., OG; Ethan Epps, Sr., DL; Ryan Cooper, Sr., FS.
•Strengths: They're the Commerce Tigers. The 2020 might be a squad full of first year starters at key positions, but Hollars believes the tradition of Commerce is a strength because of how hard the players have worked to since joining the program so they could add to that tradition.
“I think there’s a hunger to prove themselves," he said. "We have to prove ourselves. We’re a part of a program with great tradition. Those are all the people who came before us. So we talk to them about ‘now is the time to prove yourself.’ The best way to do that is by action. Let’s go out and get better every day. I think there’s a hunger to represent Commerce and carry on the tradition. I think it's a strength, that hunger to prove themselves."
•Mark your calendar: Like last year, expect a three-way battle for the Region 8-A Public Championship with Commerce, Washington-Wilkes and Lincoln County. The Tigers host Washington Wilkes on October 29 and travel to Lincoln County on November 5. Commerce's biggest non-region game is September 3 at home against former region rival Athens Academy. Because of the public/private split in Class-A, the match between the Tigers and Spartans is a premier crossover game.
•Outlook: Commerce is looking to win back-to-back region championships for the first time since winning straight titles from 1997-to-2000. However, the Tigers need to grow up fast as they're replacing over 20 contributors from last year's squad, including starters at quarterback, running back, offensive line and both starters at inside linebacker. Fortunately, Commerce has five non-region games against quality opponents to prepare for its grueling region slate.
Building the offense around Martin
Of Commerce's three biggest offensive weapons last year, the only one still with the team is Dreylan Martin. He rushed for 859 yards and scores 12 touchdowns in 2020. Without Trey Huff and Sammy Brown, Martin assumes a larger role in Commerce's defense.
That's not to say the Tigers are void of talent at running back. Head coach Mark Hollars said the Tigers have plenty of depth at the position. For fullback, Hollars pointed out juniors Jack Fagan and Malachi Shockey, calling them physical runners. Then at slotback, he listed off Caleb Lovin, Jaiden Daniels, Jacarri Huff and Jackson Morris.
"We can rotate those kids and keep them fresh, I like that," Hollars said.
Landon Bunn and Trey Garnto are in the heat of battle at quarterback. Hollars alludes that he and the staff will use every minute available to decide which quarterback will start in the season opener against Banks County. Both played extensively in the scrimmage against Apalachee. While Bunn had the prettier stat line, Hollars didn't hint at either quarterback being the full-time starter over the other.
"That's a good problem to have," Hollars said. 'They're both pushing each other, both making each other better. We'll make that decision soon, obviously before next week."
Commerce still runs the triple option offense, so there's not much emphasis on the receiving corps, but Hollars made sure to mention seniors Wesley Stilley and Ryan Cooper.
"We run a triple option, if you do this right, your receivers can have a lot of touchdown passes," he said. "They may not have all the catches and yards, but in our offense, you're going to have some big plays. We expect big plays in our passing game."
Mason Gaddis and Lambdin Hardy are the anchors the Tigers are rebuilding the offensive line around. According to Hollars, junior guard Hampton Hutto has already stepped up into a starting role.
Both tackle spots are still up for grabs and Hollars didn't name anyone in particular. Commerce has a very deep group of players listed as offensive tackles on the rosters. Ethan Epps is the only senior, while the junior tackles are Zander McLane, Jonathan Orozco and Tommy Durham. Filling out the roster are underclassmen Jamey Fowler, Evan McLane, Joey Duncan, Wesley Bowen, Boston Brown, Corey Suber and Bristol Worley.
Hollars said Commerce is really counting on seniors Ethan Epps, Kamanni Horne and Wesley Stilley, and juniors Colton Hill and Zander McLane to lead the defensive line. Epps, Hill and McLane are interior linemen while Horne and Stilley are going to man the edge of the defensive line.
Hollars also recognized freshman Tysean Wiggins is a young guy who's starting to emerge. Beyond them, he sees a lot of depth on the Tigers' defensive line.
"We've got a lot of guys competing there," Hollars said. "I think we have a little bit of depth there where we can rotate some bodies and keep them fresh."
Cole Hill and Collin Hall are manning the linebacker spots. Both have big shoes to fill taking over for Brown, Grey Holbrook and Hunter Nunn.
If Garnto doesn't win the starting quarterback job, he could have a home on defense as he played in Commerce's defensive backfield last year. As did Martin, in fact, the defensive backfield is the area where Commerce returns the most from last year. Filling out the backfield are seniors Landon Worley and Ryan Cooper.
"We've got some depth again," Hollars said. "Jackson Morris, Caleb Lovin, Cohen Thomason, you'll see all of those guys rotate and keep everyone fresh."
One of the biggest loses from last year's squad was kicker Eryck Diaz. Hec onverted the second-longest field goal in Commerce football history last year (44 yards), while booting 46-of-60 kickoffs for touchbacks.
To replace Diaz, Hollars went to the Commerce soccer team and grabbed some players to compete for kicking duties.
"I think if a young man or a young lady can kick a ball, and that's something they've done their whole life, they might be able to help your football team," Hollars said. "I think you'd be crazy to not try to tap into that."
According to the players
Expectations for the offense: "To be able to move the ball and score touchdowns, run up and down the field. Get after it and carry the Tigers to a win each and every Friday night.”
Increased role on offense: “Being a leader of the offense is a big deal to me. I’ve always dreamt of this opportunity since I was little watching the seniors and everyone else on Tiger field on Frida nights. It’s all led up to this. Now that it’s my turn, I’m going to give Commerce all I have, run as hard as I can each night and try to lead all the other runners on the team.”
Keeping the triple option: “I was hoping the offense wouldn’t change. That’s our bread and butter, that’s how we win football games. It’s awesome that coach Hollars brought in the same offense.”
Playing for coach Hollars: “He’s had a huge impact on each and every player here. He’s got us to buy in to what he’s brought here. He already had the Commerce culture, that’s what he believes in as well.”
Keeping the triple option: “I’m very grateful for coach Hollars and I’m very happy we’re running the same offense. I really enjoy his new scheme of blocking. We’re staying with the same traditions we’ve always had at Commerce.”
Leader on offensive line: “A lot of the guys don’t have as much experience, so Mason and I have kind of stepped up. We’re helping the new guys that are rotating in… trying to get them ready, not just for this year but for the future.”
Leader on offensive line: “Taking on a lot of responsibility, trying to fill in some big shoes.”
Expectations for the offense: “To come out as a group and execute plays.”
Keeping the triple option: “It’s comforting. I’m going to take on a different responsibility, but it’s still Commerce football.”