Program fixtures such as running back Tyre Golmond -- the school’s career rushing leader -- and defensive cornerstone Kaleb Pipes have graduated.
But the outlook for Denham Springs High this offseason and spring has been anything but cloudy.
“It’s got more to do with the culture,” second-year DSHS coach Bill Conides said. “Any program that you essentially start from the ground up, Year 2 is always going to be better if the culture is good. Our culture is certainly better, and as a result our Year 2 should be better.”
The next phase in that development takes place this week.
Denham concludes spring drills at 5 p.m. Friday with a round-robin, controlled scrimmage when the Yellow Jackets host both Warren Easton and Madison Prep Academy.
“We feel like we’re a better team right now than when we finished the season last year,” Conides said. “That’s got everything to do with the coaches. It’s got everything to do with the kids and what we’ve been able to do with the offseason program since that (state playoff) loss to Hahnville. We feel very good with where we are right now.”
What’s the biggest source of Conides’ excitement?
Start with a 25-member rising senior class, 20 of whom either started or received significant playing time in 2017. DSHS has eight returning starters on offense, five on defense and both specialists back.
Moreover, Conides is ecstatic over his team’s progress in the weight room where 49 players – 11 more than last season – have power-cleaned 225 pounds or more.
“From a physical standpoint, we’re certainly stronger,” Conides said.
"(Defensive coordinator/strength coach) Gary Coates has done a phenomenal job. The gains these kids have made have surpassed his expectations.
“It’s not only added strength, but it adds camaraderie. When a teammate can watch another teammate go all out, completely sacrifice, make good decisions and work really hard, those teammates around him will believe in him and that’s what we’re ultimately trying to get on Friday nights. We want 120 guys to believe in each other and a lot of that comes from the work they put in during the offseason. Our kids have certainly bought into that concept.”
Denham lost 23 seniors from a team that went 6-5 and finished third in rugged District 4-5A with a 3-3 record.
The Yellow Jackets were not able to sustain a 5-1 start and tumbled down the stretch with four losses in their last five games, including a 42-21 loss at eventual state runners-up Hahnville in the opening round of the Class 5A state playoffs.
“We lost to the teams that were better than us,” Conides said. “We beat the teams we thought we were better than. The biggest thing we have to get over the humps – the three teams we lost to Zachary, Walker and Scotlandville.
“If you want to be really good in our district, and we feel like we play in the best district in the state, you’ve got to be able to beat those guys,” Conides said. “Our biggest concern is not necessarily what they do; it’s what we do. With what we do in the offseason and on a daily basis, simply has to be better than theirs. That’s our focus. It has to be a state of mind when we approach the spring, summer and when we get into fall practice.”
The return of seniors Jose Ortega, a second team all-district place-kicker, and JP Preston, an honorable mention all-district punter, could give Denham Springs one of the league’s top kicking duos.
“It’s so important in our district where it’s so tight and the teams are so good, you can certainly win or lose games on special teams,” Conides said.
Denham Springs doesn’t return another all-district performer from last season and will turn to senior Tre Muse to try and fill the fleet-footed shoes of Golmond. Muse sat out last season as an academic casualty, but continued to practice with the team.
Conides had high praise for junior quarterback Luke Lunsford, who recently received his first scholarship offer from Alabama-Birmingham.
“He’s got the attitude, he’s got the swagger and is extremely coachable,” he said. “He’s a special kid. What makes him special is his leadership. I think every single guy in the locker room believes in what he can with his talent. The sky is the limit for him.”
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Lunsford passed for 68 yards and 2 touchdowns in a relief role behind senior starter Cameron Feucht last season.
Senior receiver D.J. Williams (27-406, 4 TDs) leads an experienced corps that also includes fellow senior returners Brycen Longley, Kaleb Drummer and Hunter Bond.
Senior guard Jake Evans and junior center Lake Thorburn are the lone returnees for an offensive line that also developed depth through rotating a number of players a year ago, Conides said.
“Our offense is going to be based on not creating offensive statistics that I’m used to and wanted to do,” Conides said.
“One thing in my second year as head coach in this district is that you’ve to take your ego and put it to the side. It’s not about offensive production or breaking records. We feel like we’ve put an efficient offensive system together and ultimately we feel it’s going to help us win more football games.”
Without Pipes to anchor the interior and fellow departed first team all-district selection Justin Anderson in the secondary, Conides believes he still has proven commodities on the defensive side to rely on.
Junior defensive end Kaydon Berard is back on the defensive line along with senior tackle Nick Carlton.
Senior linebacker Brennan Leblanc, whose highlight from last season included an 8-sack night against Live Oak, will team with senior Texas transfer Davion Massri at linebacker and seniors Calen Young and E.J. Burgess are building blocks for a secondary that graduated all of its starters.
“We feel really good with where we’re at,” Conides said. “Every day has been so positive. We feel really good about we’re doing and feel good about the culture. The kids and coaches are happy. We’re excited to play a football game this week.”