If you can read anything into a No. 6 state ranking in Week 4 of the high school football season, Rance Gillespie has things on track at Hart County.
Gillespie arrived at Hart in 2017 after a season as the Georgia Southern's co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. What he inherited was a program that had some minor success in recent years, including a quarterfinal appearance and 11-2 finish in 2014 under head coach William Devane. But the Bulldogs suffered a 1-9 finish the year before Gillespie arrived.
His first two seasons were a struggle, but progress was made and crucial experience gained by a budding group of players working their way through the ranks. In 2017, Hart finished 3-8 and made a first-round playoff exit. Last season, the Bulldogs’ record improved to 4-7, but another early exit in the playoffs sent Hart home empty-handed and a yearning for a longer season.
This year, the Bulldogs are 3-0 for the first time since 2014 and state-ranked (No. 6) for the first time since 2016. If there is a sleeper team in Class AAA, Hart County might be it.
“It has been a process, but we’ve got so many kids who have played two or three years in our system,” Gillespie said. “The first year, we played quite a few 10th-graders and freshman and now they’re older and have had a couple of years in the weight room to develop. It’s starting to pay dividends.”
It has been a family affair for the players who’ve embraced an "all-in" mentality. Hart County has its front-runners and players who are considered big-time recruits. But Gillespie says that isn’t what high school football is about.
“We have got a couple of kids who’ve received a lot of attention,” he said. “They have gotten some Division-1 offers. We have a tight end who is committed to Notre Dame. We’ve got a defensive end who is committed to North Carolina. But the neat thing about our football team is that it seems like, for the first four weeks if you include the scrimmage, we’ve found a different way to get things done each and every week.”
On offense, Hart is outscoring opponents 105-40, defeating Elbert County 39-7, Stephens County 26-13 and Commerce 40-20. The unit, as Gillespie puts it, is primed.
“Our offensive line is playing good as a unit,” Gillespie said. “We have a couple of backs who’ve rushed for around 100 yards a game. We had one rush for 160 on Friday. Our quarterback is a three-year guy in the system, and he understands. And we’ve got some wideouts who’ve made some plays for us on the perimeter, as well.”
Quarterback Luke Lee is 24-of-35 passing for 397 yards and five touchdowns. Lee is a 6-foot, 170-pound senior who’s very familiar with what the Bulldogs offense is supposed to look like.
“I think he’s mastered the offense,” Gillespie said. “I think he totally understands what we want to do. We’ve put a lot on him, and he’s done really well with that from a mental aspect. He’s got a good skill-set for what we are looking for a quarterback to do. He distributes the ball well and runs well enough that he needs to be guarded in the run game, as well. We want to attempt to be balanced, but that doesn’t mean we will go into every game and make sure we throw it 50 percent of the time or run it 50 percent of the time.”
The balance allows Hart to be open with its play-calling and utilize 4-star tight end Cane Berrong in several ways. Berrong, who committed to Notre Dame, has eight receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. But Gillespie said Berrong's offensive prowess has paved the way for a very effective running game.
“First of all, he’s a big target with really good hands,” Gillespie said of Berrong. “He’s a big guy, 6-4, 230 pounds, and is one of the faster kids on the team. He can really run. He has developed into a really good blocker at the point of attack. When I got here, he was a quarterback and transitioned to the tight end position. Playing with his hand down and learning to block has been a transition, but he has bought into it and has done a good job. A lot of the things we are able to do in the run game have been because of him at the point of attack.”
Backs Malachi Thomas, a junior, and J’Len Lackey, a sophomore, have benefited. Thomas is leading the rushing attack with 51 carries – his longest for 52 yards -- for 388 yards and five touchdowns. Lackey has 35 carries – his longest for 46 yards -- for 239 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas recently surpassed 1,500 yards for his career. Both rushed for 100 yards in Week 2 against Stephens County.
On defense, the Bulldogs are vastly improved. Last year, through three games, Hart gave up 78 points after losing each of its first three games. This year, it has given up 40. The most heavily recruited defensive player is 3-star strong-side defensive end Kaimon Rucker, a North Carolina commitment.
“Defensively, our front has really improved and gotten a lot better,” Gillespie said. “Our secondary is really coming on and we are getting solid linebacker play. So it’s really hard to put a finger on one or two guys. Rucker is committed to North Carolina right now, and he’s an outstanding student and person. He just always does the right thing with a high motor and a great get-off. That’s a great place to start for an edge guy. But that’s the great thing about football. It's unlike other sports, where one player can kind of step in and dominate and take over a game. It's harder to do in the game of football. It takes 50-60 kids working at it Monday-Thursday to get where we want to be on Friday.”
And this Friday, the Bulldogs will be at Madison County in its last game before entering 8-AAA play. That's when Hart plans to challenge for its first region title since 2001.
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