Dougherty quarterback Michael Whatley, who threw for over 2,000 yards and combined for 25 touchdowns in the air and on the ground last season, is back under center for the Trojans, and the junior is ready to lead Dougherty to its first multi-win season in three years. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Michael Whatley can still feel the weight being lifted off his shoulders.
It’s been nearly 10 months, but the relief of snapping a 15-game losing streak late last season with an upset victory against Americus-Sumter is still pushing Dougherty’s junior quarterback.
Now Whatley and his Trojan teammates are ready to take the next step in rebuilding a once proud program.
“I still feel the excitement from that win,” Whatley said. “But I want more. I want a lot more. And I know my teammates want more, too. They are striving for it, too.”
Corey Joyner enters his second season as head coach of the Trojans and is joined on the sidelines this year by his brother and former Albany State offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner, who left the Golden Rams in the spring to take a similar position at Dougherty.
The Trojans are coming off back-to-back one-win seasons, but the buzz around preseason practice isn’t one of a struggling program.
It has the feeling of a renaissance.
And it all started Nov. 1 of last year with a 16-7 win against Americus.
“That’s what I have been telling the guys all summer. That feeling (of beating Americus) is what we are trying to get back to,” senior linebacker Deon Randolph said. “That feeling every Friday night, you have to get used to it. That’s a feeling we can get used to. That was a proud night for us.”
Right at the center of Dougherty’s revival is Whatley, a 5-foot-7 quarterback who exemplifies the type of athlete Joyner is rebuilding the program around. Injuries prevented Whatley from playing all 10 games last season, but he still managed to throw for over 2,000 yards and combine for 25 touchdowns in the air and on the ground.
He’s the perfect cornerstone to a program that is still trying to win its first game against an Albany school since 2009.
“The reason why he is a good guy is because he is No. 1 in his classroom,” Joyner said. “Whatley was Student of the Month probably three times last year. He ended up being Student of the Year. He got over a 3.0 GPA, and that’s what I tell our players — we are building our program around academics.
“Dougherty hasn’t been suffering because we haven’t had good football players. We have always had good football players, but we haven’t had intelligent football players. That’s what we are building our team on.”
Joyner has had to rebuild Dougherty from the ground up, and the rebirth of the Trojans’ glory years has been anything but instant. Last year Dougherty started the season with eight straight losses before the upset of Americus and finished the year with a 56-22 blowout loss to Cairo. Playing against fellow Region 1-AAAA teams with rosters two or three times bigger, the Trojans were outscored, 386-172, last year and gave up more than 40 points in six of their games.
They have fewer than 40 players on their roster again this season, but Joyner says those that stuck with the program the past two years are “the ones who count.”
“We could hold 65 kids if we wanted, but are they going to buy into our system?” Joyner said. “We want guys who are going to buy into our system and what we are trying to do.”
Randolph is one of six returning starters on defense — along with Jaylon Scott (LB), Alton Fisher (DL), Robert Hicks (DB), Jared Kiser (DB) and Dallas Sutton (LB) — and he is one of the kids who is sold on Joyner’s vision at Dougherty.
“This program has been under the gun for so long, and it would mean so much to myself and the seniors to turn it around. But it’s going to take everybody, all the way down to the freshmen,” Randolph said. “The pieces are starting to come together more and more as we start to come together as brothers. It’s like a puzzle. We aren’t quite finished yet, but we are almost there.”
It’s a puzzle that former Dougherty coach Jessie Hicks thought he could piece together from 2010-11, but the former Albany State star left after two seasons and a 3-17 record. This year it’s a puzzle full of sweat and determination — and every Friday morning during the summer the Trojans added a little sand to the recipe.
Adopting a tradition soaked into Albany State’s history, the Trojans met as a team once a week to run up and down the sand dunes just east of ASU’s campus.
“Running the dunes was tough, but we got through it as a family,” Randolph said. “That’s what coach always tells us, that we are responsible to hold each other up. We get through it as a team, just like we play on Friday nights as a team.”
This Friday night, the Trojans will likely have their toughest challenge of the season when they travel to Leesburg to face quarterback and Ohio State signee Stephen Collier and a Lee County team that might be the best squad in Southwest Georgia. Dougherty and Lee County renewed the “Trojan Bowl” matchup last season, and Lee County rolled to a 49-32 victory.
Collier has only gotten better in the 12 months since that game and was even named one of the top QBs in the nation this summer when he was selected to compete in the famed Elite 11 quarterback camp.
Randolph and his defense will be the first this season to line up against Collier. And the senior linebacker can’t wait for the challenge.
“Let’s go,” Randolph said. “That’s all I can say. Let’s go.”
On offense, Whatley will be handing the ball off to returning starting running back Ladarrien Royal, who was instrumental in last year’s win against Americus when he rushed for over 100 yards.
And instead of Corey Joyner calling the shots on offense, it will be Uyl, who starred at quarterback during the Trojans’ 1998 state championship season and went on to enjoy a college career at Troy University and Albany State, where he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the past two years.
Now Uyl’s football career has come full circle, completing a Dougherty coaching staff that is almost exclusively made up of former players.
“Uyl always knew he was a high school coach, but he had to take that chance at Albany State when he had the opportunity,” said Corey, who was a receiver during his playing days at Dougherty. “After the unfortunate situation with that, he is back here. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That’s how we look at it.
“Uyl is going to be a little more run oriented with it, and I always wanted to sling it. It’s going to be good because Uyl can bring more of an analytical mind. He sees things before they happen, and that gives me the opportunity to do more game management.”
NOTES: Quarterback Chris Thomas saw some time under center last year for the Trojans but transferred to Sherwood over the summer. During Sherwood’s season opener last Friday, Thomas didn’t start at QB but ran the ball six times for 24 yards. … Dougherty’s home opener is Sept. 7 against Westside, Macon, which shut out the Trojans last season, 41-0. … Dougherty hasn’t won a game against a fellow Albany school since Oct. 3, 2009 when they routed Westover, 32-8. Since that game, the Trojans are a combined 0-10 against Westover, Monroe and Albany High. They play all three city schools in back-to-back-to-back weeks this season, starting Oct. 11 with Albany.