Entering the 2018 football season, Cartersville had plenty of positions devoid of experienced players. Some of those spots had FBS-level talent ready to step in, such as Tee Webb at quarterback or Isaiah Chaney on the defensive line.
There were plenty of others looking to get their first chance to start on varsity, and hoping they could impress college coaches into joining the fraternity of Canes playing at the next level.
Few players stepped up more than wide receiver Dadrian Dennis and linebacker Tristan Carlton. The seniors played two of the positions hit hardest by the Class of 2018’s departure.
All they did was turn the opportunity into a phenomenal final season with the Canes, while also ensuring themselves that it wasn’t the last time they would play football.
“Both of these guys are guys who have done everything that is asked of them,” Cartersville recruiting coordinator Dusty Phillips said of Dennis and Carlton. “That’s the beauty of seeing guys like that get rewarded, because they’ve done everything the right way. They’ve fought their tails off, and now, they’re getting the fruits of their labor.”
Those rewards culminated in the scholarships each signed to play collegiately at a recent ceremony inside the CHS media center. Dennis inked his national letter of intent with University of the Cumberlands, while Carlton will be heading to nearby Shorter University.
Both players felt as though their future college teams somewhat mirror the Canes, at least in terms of how the programs are run.
“I feel like they have a respectful program,” Dennis said. “They work hard; they always train hard; and they’re a good football team. I feel like I’ll have good relationships with the players, when I go up there.”
Said Carlton, “I like how personal it is, because it’s just like here. They’re always really friendly with you. I have faith in them.”
With the graduation of Trevor Lawrence and the team’s three leading receivers from 2017, Dennis had a chance to stake a claim as one of Webb’s go-to targets. He certainly succeeded in that regard.
Dennis had the second-most receptions on the team (34) and the third-most receiving yards (434). He was also on the end of the longest receiving play of the season — a 71-yard catch-and-run against McNair.
More than the stats, Phillips appreciated the effort brought day in and day out by Dennis, who was apparently generously listed at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds.
“He fights his tail off,” Phillips said. “Every opportunity he gets, he’s going to give you everything he has. He’s a little on the small side, but that never stopped him. He’s maybe the best blocking wide receiver I’ve ever had. For that to be said about a young man who’s 5-7, 140 pounds, that speaks volumes to his heart.
“Anytime you get a guy — and we have a lot of them all over this program — who just gives you everything he’s got all the time, that can’t help but endear you to him. He’s a special kid.”
Like Dennis, Carlton was a player who took advantage of his playing time in 2018. He recorded 48 tackles during the regular season, third-most on the team. Carlton also had an incredibly high football IQ, and he showed it by being in position to recover three fumbles — as many as the rest of the team combined, during those first 10 games.
One of the most improved players in Bartow County, Carlton landed an honorable-mention nod on the Daily Tribune News all-county team.
“He trusted our defensive staff,” Phillips said. “We got one of the best staffs in the state of Georgia, and our [coaches] work their tails off to put those guys in the best possible situation. The testament to Tristan is that he trusted that and just went with it. He did exactly what he was supposed to do and did it as hard as he could do it every single play.
“When guys do that, oftentimes good things happen for them. He’s seeing that right now, and he definitely deserves the recognition he’s been getting.”
While Dennis and Carlton celebrated their signings on the same day, the pair — like so many of their classmates — will be heading off in different directions, when high school ends.
Dennis will travel roughly four hours north to Williamsburg, Kentucky, to play for the NAIA Patriots. Carlton, meanwhile, will make the short drive to Rome to suit up for the Hawks.
Dennis admitted the road to this point was full of twists and turns he hadn’t expected.
“During the process, I was thinking I would get more scholarships,” he said. “… Coach Phillips told me to hold on, so I waited until my senior year. As my senior year was coming to an end, I didn’t think that I would get anything.”
But, he did. Now, as any coach will say, the real work begins.
Carlton doesn’t need to hear that lecture. He knows better than most how difficult the journey is even after becoming a college football player, because his brother, Trevor, is just finishing up his senior year at Reinhardt University.
“Just knowing that wherever you go, it’s going to be so hard on you, even if it is close to home,” Carlton said of what he learned from his brother. “He had a really tough time his first year, so it has prepared me for the reality of it. I know it’s going to be really hard on me, but I know I need to try it.”
At Reinhardt, the elder Carlton played in just one game his freshman season and made only 11 tackles his sophomore campaign. But he wound up averaging close to 40 tackles and five tackles for loss each of his final two years.
If Dennis and Tristan Carlton learned anything from their time with the Canes, it should be that biding ones time is perfectly fine. An opportunity will eventually arise, all that’s left is needing to seize it.
And they both certainly did that during their senior seasons.
“My first few years, I kind of sat in the back and didn’t get to really play much,” Carlton said. “I got to my senior year, and I was like, ‘I have to give it my all.’ I did, and it was the best time of my life.”