The line of Valdosta State University quarterbacks likely began with Chris Hatcher, said Blazers quarterbacks coach Buster Faulkner.
Faulkner should know — he was in the line of succession after Hatcher, who won the Harlon Hill Trophy as the best player in Division II, the first of three such honors for VSU quarterbacks. Hatcher, now the Georgia Southern head coach, guided his alma mater to the 2004 Division II national championship.
And now, the Blazers are coming off their second Division II crown, after David Dean guided them to a championship in his first season at the helm.
“You don’t know if it’s having great quarterbacks or great coaching,” joked Faulkner, who helped Parkview High to a run of three straight state championships. “It was obviously great winning the national championship with a first-year staff. It’s obvious we inherited a great group of kids. Anytime you can win a national championship, it’s special. But that was 2007. It’s time to move on.”
Since Hatcher came back to Valdosta in 2000 to revive the Blazers’ fortunes, Valdosta State made the playoffs every year except one and won four Gulf South Conference titles.
“We all feel fortunate,” Faulkner, who led the Blazers to a national runner-up finish in 2002, said. “We know it’s a great system to play in as a quarterback. You’ve got to have great receivers around you to make you look good.”
Barrett Wilkes, the former Lowndes star who also played at Valdosta State, is on the staff as a graduate assistant for quarterbacks. He and Faulkner likely will turn to senior Tucker Pruitt, who takes over for Willie Copeland.
Copeland threw for 3,160 yards and 28 touchdowns as Valdosta State finished with a 13-1 record, culminating with a 25-20 win over Northwest Missouri State. Pruitt, in limited action, was 18 of 29 for 227 yards and one TD.
“A lot of successful people have come through (the program),” Pruitt said. “I’m excited to have that opportunity.”
While Dean and his staff are back for a second season, not much of the offense is. Pruitt will be one of eight new starters on the offense. Davis Nall is the lone returner on the line — the graduates include Davis Russell, grandson of the late Erk Russell and now a graduate assistant at VSU — and leading receiver Cedric Jones is back. Jones was named a first-team all-American after posting 102 receptions, 1,171 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
“There are going to be a lot of new faces,” Faulkner said. “We’ve got to come together as a team. Last year, we were an older team, a senior-laden team. As a coaching staff, we’ve got to find a way to get the right guys on the field and mesh and come together as a unit.”
Pruitt watched Faulkner and the Blazers when he was growing up in Fitzgerald, about an hour north of Valdosta. His older brother also played for Valdosta State. He’s waited three years to get his chance to run the high-powered Blazers offense, which averaged 38.6 points per game last season.
“Hopefully, all that will pay off for me this year,” Pruitt said.
The Blazers also know that repeating won’t be easy, and they also know that a new starting quarterback and a dozen other new starters are going to be tested early. Valdosta State opens the season Aug. 23 with Fort Valley State and travels to Newberry the following week.
“Every year playing at Valdosta State there’s always expectations to win, given our history and the winning program we’ve been the last 10 years or so,” Pruitt said. “We know we’re going to have a bull’s-eye on our chest, and we’re going to have to be ready to play.”