The legacy left by that inaugural group, all now departed, has nothing to do with wins, championships, records or honors. When the Hawks enter the 2010 season, a campaign minus the two players who ended their careers firmly entrenched as the program's all-time best offensive and defensive stars, they will call upon what has, since day one, been the keystone of Shorter Football - relationships.
"Our foundation from the beginning has been about relationships," said Shorter head coach Phil Jones, whose Hawks are set to embark on the most challenging schedule in program history.
"For us it starts with the relationship with Christ our Lord and that relationship is eternal," Jones said. "From that we try to understand all relationships, ones that mean the most and motivate you in life. In football, relationships make you better, and with talent, you can be real good."
Relationships and talent among a roster that is Shorter's largest ever are the two key ingredients that could give the University its fifth straight winning season.
While Shorter ended the 2009 schedule with a solid 6-5 record, the Hawks came within seconds of posting a mark that would have put the team in contention for a second-straight Mid-South Conference championship and berth in the NAIA Football Championship Series. Three of Shorter's five losses were decided in the final 34 seconds or less by a combined 13 points.
"If you win those three games you go 9-2," said Jones about the heartbreakers that left the Hawks with a 3-3 slate in the league's West Division. "That's how close it was. That's a big difference between going 9-2 and 6-5, but for us the difference was 34 seconds."
The final seconds that ticked off the clock last fall also signaled the end of the careers of Shorter's most heralded players - running back A.J. Cooley and linebacker Logan Lollis, who were the respective two-time Mid-South West Division Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year.
The holder of every rushing record at Shorter and the University's first NAIA All-American, Cooley graduated as the Hawks' all-time leading rusher with 4,111 yards and 50 career rushing touchdowns. Last year, he ran for 1,429 yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and leading the Mid-South with a 129.9 yards per game average.
On the other side of the ball, Lollis became the foundation of the Hawks' defense, leading Shorter with 104 tackles last season - his second straight season of triple-digit tackles after he notched a single-season record 113 in 2008. Lollis stands alone as Shorter's all-time leading tackler with 328 stops and is also the Hawks' all-time leader in sacks.
Jones and the Hawks' coaching staff know that filling the huge voids left by Cooley and Lollis is a priority, but at the same time feel that Shorter's strength through numbers this season will compensate for the losses, as will the return of a solid core of seniors, a plethora of players who have seen action and are ready to assume increased roles, and a talented group of newcomers.
Shorter returns nine starters to an offense that led the nation in rushing for the second straight year at 326 yards per game and also welcomes back six starters from a defense that is excited to unleash a bevy of athletic and talented newcomers.
"We have a challenge," Jones said. "The players know it but they understand it and they have a lot of pride in our program. We've had a very good attitude with our preparation and I'm very pleased with that. The work ethic is good.
"But if our team is to move forward, then everyone has to embrace their role whatever it may be. That's how we can be the best we can be."
Replacing Cooley is obviously the biggest question mark facing the Hawks in 2010. What makes the issue even more of a concern is that the player who backed up Cooley for the past two seasons, Dennis Stanley, has also graduated and now serves as one of the Hawks' assistant coaches.
Three veterans stand ready to answer the team's calling at fullback - Octavious Edge, a sophomore from Atlanta who did not take a handoff last season but emerged after the Hawks' spring drills as the leading candidate; and senior David Mwamba of Lilburn and junior Blake Thomas of Dalton, both well-versed with the offense, but recipients of very little playing time.
Adding to the list of potential fullbacks are several newcomers to the program. Junior transfer T.J. Telfair, who was a former high school standout at Benedictine in Savannah, could be called upon to take the handoffs, as will freshmen Kenny Foster of Canton, C.J. Scott of Lyons, Carlos Davis of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Keandreas Wynn of Newnan.
"It could be fullback by committee," Jones said. "We don't have an A.J. Cooley-type of player right now. We have to count on everyone."
The man Shorter can absolutely count on will line up behind center for a third straight year - senior quarterback Ben Williams. Last season, the 6-1, 205-pounder was Shorter's third-leading rusher with 706 yards on 158 carries and scoring seven touchdowns. Williams also gave the Hawks a passing threat, throwing for 766 yards and a Shorter single-season record eight TDs.
So productive was Williams last season that he wound up leading the team with 1,472 total offensive yards, and since becoming the Hawks' quarterback in 2008, the program's longest tenured signal caller has racked up more than 2,500 total yards and 22 touchdowns with his legs and arm.
"He has stepped up as a leader," Jones said of Williams. "He's respected by his teammates because of his work ethic. He's mentally tough and highly competitive, and we're blessed to have him back."
Depth at the quarterback position is not an issue, as reliable junior David Byrd of Fayetteville returns in his backup role. The Hawks are also excited about the addition of promising freshman Darius Finley of Roanoke, Ala., who played at Handley High.
Shorter boasts plenty of speed, durability and experience at the two slot positions. Heading up the deep group of slots is junior Antwon Appleton of Fort Payne, Ala., who earned 2009 All-Mid-South West Division first team honors after rushing for 758 yards six touchdowns. He finished the year with a ridiculous 8.6 yards per carry average and picked up a career-high 129 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries against LaGrange College.
The Hawks can also count on senior Abdull Haynes of Villa Rica, who made the most of each touch last season by gaining 238 yards on 28 carries, one going for a touchdown.
The Hawks will have once again the services of senior Kevin Hall of McDonough, junior Albert Huntley of Atlanta, and sophomores Caleb Collins of Savannah and Brandon Morten of Roswell. A pair of redshirt freshman stand ready as well, Steven Jackson of Columbus and Roderick Jones of Hinesville, while true freshman Bradley Moon, who played at Salem High in Conyers, has also caught the coaching staff's attention.
Although running the ball is Shorter's forte, the Hawks know that their aerial game must come into play to give the team the needed balance.
"We've got to be multi-faceted," Jones said. "The passing game has to hurt people. We did more of that last year and that probably was the biggest improvement we had."
Jordan Hazard, the Hawks' leading receiver from 2009, was lost to graduation, but senior T.C. Jay of Rockmart is back after hauling in four passes for 128 yards and a touchdown last year. He already stands as the team's second all-time leading receiver with 459 yards.
Also expected to contribute are senior Calvin Gibson of Jacksonville, Fla., juniors Dustin Duckett of Albertville, Ala., and Bo Bearse of Dacula, and sophomores Allen Huntley of Atlanta and Kareem Hawkins of Dalton.
Collin Wooddy of Fayetteville gives the Hawks a proven player at tight end, where the 6-1, 220-pounder returns to his starting role.
"He has a chance to be very good," Jones said of Wooddy. "He's one of the best blockers on the team - period."
The Hawks feel they have two more players who can add the depth at the position this year as sophomore Quay Boddie of LaGrange has been moved over to the position from the defensive side of the ball, and freshman Zach Peek, who prepped at Pisgah High in Alabama, has shown some early-season promise.
Shorter is fortunate to welcome back nearly every key player who controlled the trenches last year. Senior Ryan Willoughby of Marietta returns to right tackle where the 5-11, 265-pounder has held his own for the past two seasons. Junior Andy Kellogg of Buford is back at left tackle where he earned All-Mid-South honorable mention honors last year.
Junior right guard Nick Newborn anchors the experienced bunch, as the 6-0, 300-pound Cartersville native who was a 2009 All-Mid-South West Division first team pick has been selected as an NAIA Preseason All-American.
Lining up at left guard once again is junior Sam Robison of Bremen, who shared the starting job last fall with the graduated All-MSC first teamer Kavin Walker.
In the middle of it all are two tested sophomore centers that shared the load last year - Steven Powell of Thomasville, who opened 2009 as the Hawks' starter but suffered a mid-season injury, and Michael Ozment of Silver Creek, who took over the snapping duties when Powell went down. Shorter has found another cog in the center wheel in the presence of freshman Hudson Rechsteiner, a 6-0, 250-pounder that played at Etowah High in Acworth.
As always, depth is a must for the offensive line and this year, Shorter has plenty of it. Primed and ready are senior tackle Josh Dorminy of Darien; sophomore tackle Landon Littlejohn of LaFayette and sophomore guards Nick Mitchell of Cave Spring, John Fricks of Fyffe, Ala., and Tyler Thomas of Woodstock; freshman guard Alex Burse of Dalton and freshman Josh Clements of Grove Oak, Ala.
One area Shorter fans need not worry about is the middle of the defensive line where two veterans return. Back to plug up the middle is 6-0, 270-pound sophomore Shamond Stringer of Gainesville who worked his way into the starting lineup as a freshman in 2009. Joining Stringer is senior Lonergon Honore of New Orleans, who battled injuries last fall but returns to close out his career in a Hawk uniform at full health.
The Hawks will also look for help from Cartersville's Nate Newborn, a freshman and brother of offensive guard Nick Newborn.
The defensive end position is deep with three proven veterans returning to the fold in addition to a pair of young studs. Seniors Cameron Panther of Morrow and the 6-5, 230-pound Justin Hooper of Ranger are back while sophomore Matt Kelley of Rome will make the transition from nose to end.
Bartik is thrilled about the highly-touted pair of former high school teammates from Tifton will be reunited at end. The athletic and skilled duo of Jamal Denson and Tabias Walker are set to go after redshirting in 2009.
Sophomore Patrick Keller of Acworth, who transferred to Shorter in January and had a solid spring practice, will see time as will much-anticipated freshman Jamal Aquil of Jackson, who has worked his way into contention for playing time during preseason drills.
As much as Cooley's loss left a large hole on offense, the departure of Lollis was just as big for the Hawks' defense. The difference is that Shorter may not miss a beat in the middle slots of its 3-4 defensive set.
Back to start at one of the inside positions for the third straight year is senior Garrett Hochstetler of Colbert, who was second only to Lollis in total tackles last year with 88. The 6-0, 220-pounder also added a pair of sacks and had three interceptions in 2009, which helped him earn All-Mid-South honorable mention recognition.
"He's a steady, hard-nosed, quiet ballplayer," Bartik noted about Hochstetler. "He's a good ballplayer and the kids see his work ethic."
Seniors Danny Bannach of Greeneville, Tenn., and Grant Myers of Snellville, junior Josh Hines of Rome and sophomore Drew Putnam of Rome have all seen action for the Hawks and form a solid core.
Two local products could add even better depth to the two-man position as freshmen. Josh White, a former standout at Calhoun, and Tevin Pullen, who starred at Adairsville and originally signed with Carson-Newman before opting to become a late addition to Shorter's recruiting list, have both given indications they will be ready to play.
The Hawks' strength at outside linebacker is just as noticeable. Returning to his "Jack" outside spot is junior Daniel Hazard of East Providence, R.I. Last year, the 6-0, 180-pound defender was an All-Mid-South honorable mention choice after he finished the season with 82 tackles.
Behind Hazard are two promising underclassmen, 6-2, 225-pound sophomore Kerry King of Long Island, N.Y. and freshman Zach Mann of Conyers.
On the opposite side in the "Sam" position, the Hawks boast a threesome that has all the tools. Sophomore Collyn Copeland of Rome and junior Jamey Rice of Colbert are options, while sophomore transfer Spencer Smith of Newnan - the 6-1, 205-pounder is the cousin of former Hawk standout and current defensive assistant Zack Smith - arrives at Shorter after playing a year at Charleston Southern.
One of the biggest question marks entering the 2010 season for the defense is the secondary, but Bartik has several talented players that are poised for breakout seasons. Sophomore Brandon Goss of Elberton, who transferred to Shorter over the winter and went through spring workouts with the Hawks, has emerged as a leading candidate to fill one of the two cornerback roles, as has junior transfer Mason Strickland of Calhoun, who comes to Shorter after stops at Tusculum and Georgia Southern.
Freshman Darrien Lane of Riverside has worked his way into contention to play, as have three freshmen - Austin Ingram from East Coweta, Kelvin McDonald from Portland, Ore., and Ryan Rigdon from Haralson County.
"We've got a number of kids who have the talent and are fast and aggressive coming in," said Bartik. "They will make things competitive throughout the secondary. They just have to learn the system."
Learning the system is vital to those who handle the two safety positions in the Hawks' secondary. At free safety, sophomore Desmond Clark of Rome is set to handle the task after playing with Shorter's undefeated junior varsity squad last fall and senior Josh Gibson of Watkinsville returns after starting in the slot in 2009 before having to cope with an injury.
Shorter also has a veteran back at strong safety in sophomore Spencer Bragg of Dalton, who became a frontline starter last season and picked off four passes. Sophomore Eric Stallworth of Kennesaw also looms.
Shorter has several young players that have the athletic ability to make an immediate impact, including junior Mike McWilliams of Hampton, sophomores Jai Holland of Toccoa and South Carolina State transfer Ben Hicks of Warner-Robins and freshman Anthony Hudgins of Columbus.
Shorter was strapped with finding a kicker in 2009, but had great depth in the return game. This season the situation is reversed.
Back to handle the placekicking duties is sophomore David Guilford of Rome, who converted 43 of 49 extra points in 2009. He will be pushed by two promising freshmen, former Armuchee High standout Tommy Harris and McEachern product Troy Postell.
The return game is a question, a position Shorter was blessed with last year when seniors Cooley and Jordan Hazard combined for 33 returns for more than 1,000 yards and four TDs.
Jay is the lone Hawk who has experience retuning punts, while Duckett and Morten are also being looked at as potential threats in addition to Appleton, Albert Huntley, Scott, Jones and Moon.
The schedule is unforgiving of a young team and starts with two high-profile games against NCAA II and FCS competition.
The opener on Aug. 28 in Demopolis, Ala., pits the Hawks against Gulf South Conference member West Alabama, which has all the indications that it will once again be a national contender after advancing to the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs last fall.
In addition to a talented team - the Tigers have appeared in several preseason Top 25 polls - UWA will also be under the direction of veteran head coach Bobby Wallace, a member of the NCAA Division II Football Hall of Fame who led the University of North Alabama to three straight national championships in the 1990s and was the head coach at Temple before taking over the West Alabama program four years ago.
Said Jones of the opener: "That kind of game makes you better."
Five days later and with only four days to prepare, the Hawks head to the Georgia Dome to face Georgia State in the Panthers' inaugural game, one that will certainly be in the state spotlight.
While Georgia State has found a bevy of top-caliber players to comprise the University's first team, the Panthers clearly have a proven coaching staff with Hall of Famer Bill Curry as their head coach and two coordinators with strong credentials - John Thompson (defense) and John Bond (offense).
"We think it's an exciting time for the kids because of the exposure they get and the environment of playing in the Dome," Jones said. "It'll be a real big challenge. We're excited."
Shorter was picked to finish second in the Mid-South West Preseason Poll and kicks off conference play at Pikeville (Ky.) on Sept. 18 before finally returning to Rome for its home opener on Sept. 25 against perennial power Georgetown (Ky.) on the artificial turf at the newly-renovated Barron Stadium.
"We're so excited to have the new fields," Jones said about his team being able to practice on the new Ben Brady Field on campus and play at Barron. "To start the preseason at Brady Field for the first time - it's been a gift from God for us, and now to have a stadium that has been renovated -it's amazing.
"We're so appreciative to play in that stadium and call it home."
Every member of the Hawks' football program is aware that two games do not determine a season and that they must keep the schedule in perspective during the journey. The first two games, however, do give Jones a chance to see where the team stands as the race back to the top of the Mid-South begins.
"Those are challenges but we can't measure everything by those two games," said Jones. "Our conference games have to be our focal point.
"Relationships will get you through those things. Relationships will always get you through everything."