For a Valdosta State football program two wins away from capturing its fourth national championship, Darien natives Raymond Palmer and Brian Saunds are two of its most important players, both on and off the field.

The senior defensive back and sophomore receiver each developed into the players, and men, they are now at McIntosh County Academy under former head football coach Keith Gosse.

Gosse coached at McIntosh County from 2011-13 and finished with the third-most wins in the program’s history (18). But more importantly, he shaped young men like Palmer and Saunds.

“You try to teach young men about hard work, and having standards in life, and the right way to do things, and it just really took root with those guys.” Gosse said. “They’re great young men.”

Palmer has intercepted two passes, both returned both for touchdowns, and defended seven total passes for the undefeated Blazers. Nine interceptions over his career has him tied with five players for eighth-most in school history.

Saunds ranks second among Valdosta State receivers with 32 receptions and 605 yards. In just two years, he’s hauled in 16 touchdown receptions and quickly ascended the program’s all-time leaderboard.

Both players have become lynchpins in the Blazers’ quest for the national title under VSU head coach Kerwin Bell, but both took a longer rout to on-field success than most. Gosse acted as a support system the entire way.

“(Then head coach) David Dean didn’t give me a scholarship,” Saunds said. “He didn’t give (Palmer) a scholarship, and Gosse constantly told him, ‘These are two kids that you want.’”

Gosse said he beat down the door for Dean — now the head coach at Gulf South Conference rival West Georgia — to give Palmer a shot a season after he tallied 42 tackles, forced two fumbles, broke up six passes and returned four punts for touchdowns for McIntosh County Academy, and he was finally accepted by Valdosta State late in the process.

Saunds had a solid career as a Buccaneer, but he wasn’t offered a scholarship out of high school, instead spending time as an assistant coach at Frederica Academy and serving in the Army National Guard. Four years years later, and more physically developed, Saunds felt the desire to give his playing career another shot and Gosse encouraged him to try out for the Blazers.

“(Football’s) in his blood,” Gosse said. “He won’t ever get away from this game.”

Both Palmer and Saunds were three-sport athletes at McIntosh County, but what they learned during their time with Gosse was ultimately invaluable.

“He mentored us,” Saunds said. “He taught us more than football. He told us, regardless if football ever works out, ya’ll are going to go a long way in life if you just follow the basic fundamentals that we’re teaching you on the field: being punctual, doing the little things right, working at things you’re not good at.”

Palmer added: “It helped me coming in, my mindset of just work hard, even if you get redshirted, just keep working. That’s actually a good thing, because it gives you an extra year to prepare and get ready for when the real thing comes the following season.”

Now in his fourth and final season with the Blazers, Palmer has had a major hand in helping the team host its first national semifinal game since 2004 by setting the tone for the season early on, preaching preparation to his teammates throughout the spring and summer and into training camp.

The defense has responded to Palmer’s challenge by becoming one of the top units in the nation. Valdosta State is tied for the Division II lead with six defensive touchdowns this season. They rank 21st nationally in third down defense, holding opponents to a .302 conversion rate, as well as eighth nationally in red zone defense at .629.

In two postseason games Palmer and VSU’s ‘Black Swarm’ defense has allowed just 125 yards on the ground at 2.3 yards per carry, and 504 yards through the air while picking off four passes.

“The outcome is what it is because of the offseason,” Palmer said.

Saunds stepped in as a freshman last season to assist incumbent senior Dallas Baldner in leading the receiver group, and this year he’s grown into the role even more.

It’s been Saunds’ steadying influence over a young, inexperienced receiver group that’s helped the offense blossom into the country’s best.

“I just preached to them, ‘Let’s get better,’ there’s so many things that we can grow from,” Saunds said. “But I preached more than football. I tell them that classroom is so important. The percentage is low of any of us going to the league, so enjoy it while we’re here. Take advantage of it.

“At practice, we do the little things right. Every time we catch the football, we score. We’re always jogging off the field. We’re always trying to perfect our craft.”

The Blazers’ offense leads the nation in scoring at 54.1 points per game and has scored 44 or more points in each game this season, marking the only team in all three divisions of the NCAA to accomplish the feat. VSU’s 649 points scored has already set the conference record for points in a season.

Valdosta State has scored more than 60 points in each of its first two playoff games with Saunds contributing a touchdown catch and a 43-yard punt return in the process. He ranks 21st in the nation in punt return average (12.0) and receiving touchdowns (10).

Watching Palmer and Saunds play large roles in the success of one of the top teams in the country has been immensely satisfying for Gosse, a VSU alumnus himself — a fact not lost on his former players.

“It’s awesome just to be a part of something special,” Palmer said. “Watching him come, and knowing his history here at Valdosta State and his successful season when he was here, and to now watch a couple of his players that he groomed coming out of high school and playing together…”

Gosse played on the offensive line at VSU and earned All-GSC honors in 2001 as a key member of a unit that blocked for Division II Hall of Famer Dusty Bonner and paved the way for Aaron Jenkins to record for the program’s single-season rushing record.

Now Gosse has the opportunity to see Palmer and Saunds use the lessons he helped instill in them as they work to bring a national title back to Valdosta State.

“Just a little bit short of my own kids, it’s about the same level of pride,” Gosse said. “I have a few of my own, and I’d imagine I’d be really proud of them just a little bit more, but it’s very similar.

“You end up spending, as a coach, so much time putting things into kids. Teaching not just a game, but how to carry yourself as a young man and carry yourself at life. You see those things continue to grow, and then to do it at your alma matter and have them in the hunt for another national title, and winning a conference championship, I’m immensely proud. I couldn’t be prouder of those guys.”

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