Buford Wolves versus Jonesboro Cardinals

On May 1, Buford head coach Bryant Appling gets to lead his team on the grass again. The expectations quickly become lofty. The anticipation buzzes from Main Street to Robert Bell Parkway. 

There soon won’t be a wait. Buford football is near. 

“We’re itching to put some pads on and compete,” Appling said. “That competitive nature might go away after a few days when you’re hitting and sore. I want to see what they look like on day three and four rather than day one. 

“I want them to understand that it’s a grind.”

For the second time in around seven years when Buford scrimmaged against Houston County, it will host a spring opponent. Buford is implementing a split spring schedule where it practices five times from May 1-8 before hosting Norcross at Tom Riden Stadium on May 9. The Wolves will take a brief hiatus until May 13 and finish the slate with four practices. 

“I love the fact that we get to prepare, play a game,” Appling said. “Then come back and watch the film and correct some mistakes versus having the last thing you do is a spring game.”

Let’s open the notebook on everything The North Gwinnett Voice has gleaned within the Buford football program within the past week. 

Raiola pipeline lives on

Buford has a two-horse race at quarterback ahead of the 2024 season: Dayton Raiola and TJ Wilcox, who recently transferred to the program from Collins Hill.

Yes, Raiola. Some people have heard of that name before. 

Last season, Dylan Raiola transferred to Buford from Arizona. He led the Wolves with 2,666 yards and 34 touchdown passes before signing with Nebraska. Now, his younger brother Dayton could take the reins of the Buford offense. The Raiola brothers have a pipeline that dates back to their father, Dominic Raiola, playing in the NFL as a second-round pick of the Detroit Lions. 

Dayton was a backup to his older brother last season and saw time on Buford’s junior varsity team. 

“This is his chance to be the guy. I told him to ‘take the bull by the horns and make plays,’” Appling said. “He can’t worry about what (Dylan) did, but do what you do and have fun with it. He’s a high-level preparer, watches film and does whatever is necessary to be a good football player.”

Dayton has offers from Appalachian State, Charlotte and Nebraska. He’s unranked in the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Wilcox has offers from Georgia Tech and West Virginia. He is unranked on rivals.com.

Looking for offensive line answers

Along with losing five defensive backs, Buford searches for answers along the offensive line as one of its biggest spring practice battles. 

Senior Braden Jacobs is a definite starter at left tackle. Junior Preston Clark will see starting time after floating around at the center and guard positions a season ago. Otherwise, the Wolves have around 16 players competing for playing time. 

Some of those fighting for positions include junior tackle Graham Houston, senior Brayden Burton and junior Ben Mubenga.

“They’ve got the chance to play,” Appling said. I’m excited to see how it shells out.”

Season schedule released

For 10-plus years, Buford has put a lot of effort toward scheduling an out-of-state opponent. It has played a school from outside of the Georgia border in four-of-five seasons of Appling’s coaching tenure, played two out-of-state programs in each of the last three seasons and has one loss in those games (Chaminade-Madonna, Fla., 2021). 

Ahead of the 2024 season, however, Buford chose to keep its schedule strictly in-state as teams needed games. The Wolves have four regular-season games at Tom Riden Stadium due to scheduling negotiations with different programs.

Appling said Buford got “a good deal with competition early in the season,” because Benedictine, Roswell and Milton have strong programs. Buford’s preseason scrimmage opponent, Langston Hughes, lost to Buford 21-20 in the 2021 GHSA 6A state championship. 

I know 7A is a monster, and, obviously, now 6A is a monster,” Appling said. “You have to play great games to be prepared to play. We don’t care who it is, but we want to get a game and hopefully it’s a four-quarter war that will grow our young kids up.” 

The full 2024 schedule is as follows.

  • Aug. 8 vs. Langston Hughes (preseason)
  • Aug, 16 at Milton
  • Aug. 23 vs. Benedictine
  • Sept. 6 at Roswell
  • Sept. 13 at Douglas County
  • Sept. 20 at Discovery
  • Oct. 4 vs. Collins Hill
  • Oct. 10 vs. Dacula
  • Oct. 18 vs. Central Gwinnett
  • Oct. 25 at Mountain View
  • Nov. 1 at Mill Creek

Another Simpson joins the staff

Jess Simpson, now an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, has a Buford résumé that speaks for itself. He won 164 games as opposed to 22 losses and won seven GHSA state championships in eight years. Now, the Simpson family is back as his son, Jake Simpson, has joined Appling’s staff as a community coach. 

Jake works full-time at Pro Quick Draw, as a full-time account manager under Buford alumnus and former Wolves’ assistant coach Kevin Reddy, who is the company’s director of sales and services. Once he’s off the clock, however, Jake had an itch to get back on the grass. 

“The people I will be around are most exciting,” Jake told The North Gwinnett Voice. “These coaches have so much knowledge of the game and the ways I can be useful to them.”

Jake got the idea from another Buford alumnus who comes from a coach’s family. TD Roof. son of Ted Roof, longtime college defensive coordinator Ted Roof. TD joined Buford during the 2023 season as a community coach after Appling pitched the idea at a golf tournament. TD turned his time at Buford into another job as he’s now a graduate assistant at Mississippi State University. 

A few days ago, Jake got approved by the Buford Board of Education to start the job. He’s already been beneficial to the program, Appling said, because he already has an idea of how the program runs because Appling coached Jake for four seasons when he was a student at Buford. 

“He’s a coaches’ kid, so he might say ‘I don’t want to do what my dad did,’” Appling said of Jake. “If it’s in your blood, then it’s in your blood.”

Jake, throughout his childhood, rode along Jess for all of the memories his father made in the green-and-gold. Now, however, he’s trying to make his imprint on Buford with his own coach’s title.

“I don’t really think about it like (walking in my dad’s footsteps).” Jake said. “I do know that there’s a standard of how you’re supposed to work that he’s always had. If I did follow in his footsteps in that area, that would be a good thing to aim for.”

Renewing the mindset

The 2024 season can be viewed as a reclamation project. Buford carries statewide reputation and could do so for ages due to its history and tradition. There’s a goa, though, which is return to glory after consecutive early playoff exits. 

Appling’s era at Buford began with three-consecutive titles after taking over for ousted predecessor John Ford. The past two campaigns, however, came with a star-studded roster and defeats to Grayson (2023) and Walton (2022). Now, the Wolves have lost plenty of those stars as they’ve gone to Division I colleges. 

Not to say that Buford won’t have stars in 2024, but it will use spring practice in search of an identity. 

I’ve been on all of our kids that being uncomfortable is a good thing,” Appling said. “I know no one likes that anymore — especially now with kids who want it cookie-cutter and exactly right.”

Buford’s spring practice will be filled with competition, a phrase used by many college coaches to the point where it becomes cliche. However, Appling is imploring his players that they have to “win and beat somebody,” or the results won’t be what they envision. 

“Kids and people these days are scared about losing,” Appling said. “They don’t want to put themselves and be embarrassed.”

Stadium updates

Buford city manager Bryan Kerlin gave an update on the new city stadium while revealing some of its amenities Friday.

The complex will feature a two-sided scoreboard that is 81 by 44 feet, a set of suites atop the home stands and a new end-zone fieldhouse. The timetable for completion is unknown.

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