FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MORE THAN TWO DECADES, the Darlington football program will have a major change on the sideline. After longtime coach Tommy Atha retired last season, the Tigers brought in Wayne Groves to be the head coach.
Groves had been an assistant at Rome for a while, and his defenses were renowned around the state for playing tough football.
“We settled in and we got rolling. We started the first week of April, so we got a two-month head start on summer, which we needed. I felt like I was three months behind when I walked into the building,” Groves says. “I took over all the strength conditioning programs for all athletics. I wanted to install my system and speed program.”
Sometimes a shift at the top and lots of changes can upset the apple cart so to speak, but the Tigers’ players have taken everything in stride getting to know the new coaching staff and working in the new programs.
“The kids have done a good job of buying in. I’m still running the defense and coaching linebackers. At a smaller school, a head coach has to coach, and I still wanted to coach a position and still wanted to run the workouts,” Grove says. “We started summer after that first week of June. Attendance has been phenomenal with about 99 percent attendance.”
Attendance and buy-in are super important, as the coaches are teaching new systems and terminologies to the players.
“We have a new offensive and defensive system with new terminology and schemes, and this summertime has been invaluable,” Grove says. “Of course, the main thing is I have to get the kids in here trusting and believing in me. They have to see that they can count on me, and that I have a plan.”
Helping lead the new offensive system will be D’marion Floyd, who was the Tigers’ leading rusher in 2022 while earning all-state honors. All told he tallied more than 1,000 yards rushing.
Groves mentions several players who could make an impact at wide receiver including Talan Shirey, Hendrix Jones, Jake Trebus, and Miles Twyman.
The Tigers’ offensive line did lose a few key players to graduation but also brings back some experience with Jack Chandler. Mackay Rush also got moved to the offensive line to help shore it up some as well as Connor Ellison.
“Our defense has six starters coming back, including Sam Wooten. He’s a junior that is a big, strong kid,” Grove says. “Noah Duggan will be an outside linebacker, and I expect big things from him.”
Groves mentions that the secondary might be the strongest spot on defense with Shirey and Floyd playing cornerback. Both players are three-year starters. Groves says Sammy Kunczewski will start at strong safety and Trebus will also be a big name in the defensive backfield.
One question that will be answered closer to the start of the season is who takes over as the Tigers’ quarterback. Right now Kunczewski, Luke Parker, a transfer from Cartersville, and Henry Ledbetter are all battling it out for the spot.
“We’re trying to sort that out, and it’s great because it’s helping us build depth at that position,” Groves says. “I feel really good about all three of them.”
The Tigers open with a difficult non-region slate to help them prepare for what will be a tough region schedule.
“I’m not as familiar with the teams in this region. I think it will be a very competitive region. It could easily come down to a blunder or one different detail in a game,” Groves says.
As far as how the Tigers could fare this season, Groves says it could come down to a couple of key things.
“We feel really good about our skill guys. It’s just going to be the offensive line, the defensive line, and the players learning the new terminology and the new scheme,” he says. “If they develop the way we think they can, we’ll have a chance. That is the key.”