This past offseason, David Dean — who, in nine seasons at the helm at Valdosta State, took the Blazers to six NCAA postseasons, one Gulf South conference championship and two national championships — became the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at FBS program Georgia Southern. It left a big hole in Valdosta State's program.
That hole was filled by Kerwin Bell.
Bell, who was named head coach for Valdosta State in January 2016, is no stranger to high-flying offenses and winning, coming off a run as the head coach at Jacksonville of the FCS. There, he accumulated a 66-35 record while establishing many league and program records. Perhaps, Bell is known more as the University of Florida Hall of Famer who was the Gators' starting quarterback from 1984-87, winning the SEC Player of the Year in 1984. He turned that into a 13-year professional career.“I tell people sometimes you can make yourself look good if you frame it the right way,” Bell said. “I played 13 years professionally. I threw for over a 100 touchdown passes and over 20,000 yards. All of that — aside for the one 5-for-5, 75 yards and one touchdown performance with the Colts — was done outside the NFL. I was the highest-rated quarterback rated in NFL history. And, I actually made the Hall of Fame with the Colts with the picture of me wearing the helmet cam for the first time.”
That legendary SEC quarterback was born, raised and schooled — and even drafted by the Miami Dolphins — in Florida. He was one of the most dominant Gator quarterbacks of his era and later a graduate-assistant coach under Steve Spurrier and his “fun and gun” offense. Crossing the state line and becoming a head coach in Georgia was sure to ruffle some feathers.
“I learned right away, you can’t say Florida-Georgia here, you have to refer to it as Georgia-Florida,” Bell said. “I have been having to make some adjustments. There’s a lot of great people who love our program here and support it. It’s been great so far.”
Early in Bell’s life, it was all about playing the game. He hadn’t given coaching much thought. In fact, if it wasn't for a freak offseason injury, Bell may have never known he had an affinity for coaching.
“I got my degree in psychology, but I had no clue I wanted to coach,” Bell said. “Two years after being drafted, I was playing pickup basketball and tore my ACL in the offseason. So, I went to work with Steve Spurrier, who had just got hired as the new ball coach at Florida. At that time, I realized I wanted to be a coach.”
It was Spurrier’s style that caught Bell’s attention. Although he went back and continued his playing career, it stuck with him. Quietly, he paid close attention to other coaching styles, and over the years, he took little bits from each and made it his own.
“I saw perfection on the field,” Bell said. “I didn’t know you could attain that. I had never been coached like that, the way Spurrier implemented things. When I came back into coaching I took a lot of his philosophy, and lot from [Colts’] Lindy Infante. I tell people all the time, I didn’t make a whole lot of money playing professionally, but I got a whole lot of experience. I was under 11 different offensive coordinators in my 13 years. I’ve always been one of those guys who can absorb things mentally. I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to see the Don Shulas, the Pete Carrolls, the Infantes and Spurriers. So, I took the great things I saw and made it into my own.”
His own style was that of big offenses and, obviously, solid quarterback play. No one was more excited by the hiring of a quarterback’s coach than sophomore Roland Rivers. Rivers saw some action as a freshman last year, but it was largely EJ Hilliard’s show in 2015. With the senior out of the picture, it was Rivers' turn to shine.
“I didn’t really know much about him, but then when I did my research and saw the success that he had at all levels of football and knowing that he was a quarterback, a SEC Freshman of the Year and basically a quarterback guru, I knew I had a great opportunity,” Rivers said. “He’s a winner. He’s won everywhere that he’s been at, and that’s what got me excited to continue winning.”
It didn’t take long for Bell to shake things up once he arrived in Valdosta, however. After a few quarterbacks were lost to graduation and one transfer to junior college, suddenly, Rivers was the leader of a thin group at quarterback. Enter Adam Robles, a DI transfer from South Florida this past summer.“Roland [Rivers] was one of the first guys I met,” Robles said. “He came right up to me and told me, ‘Coach told me you were coming here, and I think it’s great. It’s only going to make us better, and the competition is going to make us strive.’ I couldn’t have agreed more. We knew, in the beginning, we had to push each other, and that’s the reason we have been doing so well and are trying to make each other better players. It’s the quarterback’s job to make everyone around us better. The team sees how hard we work, and that motivates everyone around us.”
One would think that, with two young sophomores battling for starting supremacy, egos could get in the way, or perhaps a rivalry would form between the two. However, both Robles and Rivers have learned to work together as a formidable two-headed monster, pushing each other to be greater each and every game. They share the offense, and neither complain when the other comes in, simply stepping aside and waiting for their next opportunity.
The stats tell the tale. Rivers — heading into this weekend’s action — has passed for 813 yards and seven touchdowns. Robles has passed for 880 yards and seven more touchdowns. They have combined to give the Blazer a passing attack of 338.6 yards a game.
“Roland [Rivers], man, the first day I got here, I was very impressed with him,” Bell said. “It was the seriousness he takes to being a student-athlete and leader and the work ethic required to be in that position. Then, all of a sudden, we got a chance to get Adam [Robles] this summer. I thought we needed somebody to be there, and if not push Roland [Rivers] and take the job, then be the guy that could come in and do something if we needed him. He is a gunslinger. He’s very sharp mentally. The number one priority to me is to have all the intangibles. I’ve seen too many kids who can throw it through a wall but can’t hit the wall. You got to have a guy with a great feel for the game, and these two guys are very special. I’ll tell you, every Saturday morning, I have to say a prayer because I don’t know who to start.”
While Robles is more of a rifle man who can sit in the pocket and spread the ball around the field, Rivers brings the element of the mobile quarterback to the game, leading the team in rushes and while adding two more scores on the ground, tied for best on the team. The fact that they both play makes it tougher for opposing defenses to prepare for one attack. Rivers has done his best to emulate his boyhood idol, growing more into his role each game.
“I guess you can say my running ability,” Rivers said of what is different about his and Robles’s game. “My ability to scramble and make plays outside of the pocket. That’s something I’m used to doing since high school. My favorite quarterback was Ben Roethlisberger growing up, so I try to take a lot of his playing style of making plays where there may not be a play.”
Despite loving the passing game, Bell knows that it takes a lot more than a gunslinger and a mobile quarterback to win football games. After all, during his senior year at UF, he handed the ball off to Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, where the playbook became, in Bell’s words, “Emmitt right, Emmitt left.”
“We throw it around a lot, but we have to stay balanced,” Bell said. “It comes down to this. A lot of people can look really good when you aren’t playing against great people. But when you play a great defense, you better be able to run the football with some power and have a precision passing game. That’s what we strive for. If you get that kind of balance, you can go play anybody in the country and be successful.”That running game is spearheaded by the reigning GSC Freshman of the Week, Cedric Hollingshed. He is coming off the biggest performance of his young career, rushing for 89 yards and catching nine more balls for 52 yards and a touchdown in the important and impressive victory over nationally-ranked conference rival West Georgia.
“He’s a walk-on,” Bell said. “He had all the physical tools. Early on, we couldn’t really get him in much because we have only one back. He has to be able to not only run the football but be a great pass catcher, understand the routes we’re running and, more importantly, blitz pickup. After two or three weeks, he realized he wasn’t going to play a lot unless he could do everything else. He really took ownership in that, and now, he’s become a complete back. It showed last week, it’s going to be fun to see him continue to improve.”
Known as the Peach Basket Game, Valdosta State dropped both rivalry games to West Georgia last season, once in the playoffs. This past Saturday in yet another difficult decision — after a game in which Robles shredded Kentucky State for 401 yards and three touchdowns — Bell went with Rivers for the start.
“Here’s a guy who threw for 400 yards the week before,” Bell said. “I tell him he’s not starting, and he tells me, ‘Hey coach, I’ll be ready, whatever is best for the team.’ All of a sudden, Roland starts and plays the best game of his season thus far and goes down with cramps. And, Adam came in, and man, he lit up.”
It was a huge win for the Blazers, especially after dropping a game to nationally-ranked UNA earlier in season. It really combined everything Bell had been working with them on since taking over: a solid performance from both Rivers and Robles, a well-rounded running game and solid defense. And most importantly, the outgoing seniors got the Peach Basket back.
“Coming from a different school, I didn’t realize how big the game was,” Robles said. “Then, I started hearing the juniors and seniors talking about how much they wanted the Peach Basket back. The fire and the passion, I could see it in their eyes how much this game meant to them. Being able to go out there when my opportunity arose, to do what I did and to do it for these seniors that haven’t won it the past couple times the played them, it was big. It was awesome, a complete team effort.”
“We knew it was going to be a very tough matchup, and they play very hard,” Rivers added. “But, if we play very hard and together as a family, I feel like we are unstoppable. We did that this past game, but we can’t live on that. We have five more games to go, and we want to dominate for the rest of this season.”
The Blazers are now up to No. 17 in the nation after their big win, sitting at 4-1. They have the seventh-ranked passing offense in DII, so for Bell, deciding on who the quarterback will be, seemingly, a daunting undertaking week to week until one steps up and claims the job.
“Ultimately, we both want to be 'the guy,'” Rivers said. “I feel that I work hard and my teammates respect me and know I’m a leader, but it just takes one of us right now. Like Coach Bell tells us, it’s time for one of us to separate from each other. We’re both playing well, competing only brings out the best in you. Adam [Robles] is great player and a great teammate, and we compete every day. It’s great having that person there to push you.”“It’s hard to play two guys. I don’t want to do that,” Bell added. “I want one to step up and take the rabbit and run with it, but right now, this gives us the best chance of winning.”
Winning they are. The relationship that Robles and Rivers have built is one of camaraderie, and what could be easily become a combustible situatuon elsewhere. Bell has seemingly harnessed the situation and has gotten the most out of two very talented athletes and leaders. Whether he is a starter or back up or continues to roll as part of the exciting tandem in Valdosta, Robles knows he made the right choice this summer.
“No regrets,” Robles said. “I knew leaving USF that, no matter where I went, I would have to compete. If I wanted to go be a guaranteed starter, I probably could have found a program that was struggling and not winning ball games and maybe try to step in and get some statistics, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. The history of this program, the way things are being run and the opportunity to win championships is what I wanted. I’m loving this place.”