Editor’s note: This is the second of two early preseason reports on area high school football teams. Information on Coahulla Creek, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield was included in Thursday’s edition of The Daily Citizen.
For Christian Heritage’s football team, the change is not so much about speed as strength — in muscles and in numbers.
The Lions, who are making the jump from the Glory For Christ Football League to the GHSA’s Class A this season, opened preseason workouts this week along with other local teams. Wednesday was the first day GHSA teams were permitted to hold official practice, but players must work out in shorts, T-shirts and helmets until Aug. 1, when they’re allowed to put on pads for the first time.
It is arguably the biggest leap a local school is making this season, although Coahulla Creek is jumping from a junior varsity schedule to varsity play in its second year. While Colts coach Jared Hamlin focused on his players getting used to the speed of the game, Christian Heritage coach Preston Poag had other wishes.
“The biggest thing for us is being more physical,” he said. “It’s tough right now without pads on. ... Some (opponents) will have some speed, but some won’t. It varies. You’re going to have some skill guys on some teams. Model, in the first game, has a quarterback who can run.”
Last year the Lions went 6-3 and reached the GFCFL championship in Poag’s first year as coach. They start the GHSA era — the school’s other sports will also make the move after competing in the GISA for the past few years — on Aug. 31 at Model.
Senior Michael McKinney, who plays end on both sides of the ball, believes the task this preseason is building up the team mentally.
“Overall as a team I think we need to work on our mindset of being in every game,” he said. “We can’t go into games assuming we’ll win without hard work, and we can’t go against good teams thinking we’ll lose.”
But Poag has another item on his preseason wish list: roles being more spread out. He had around 30 players last season — including some home school students, who were allowed to participate in the GFCFL but won’t be allowed to play in the GHSA — and 33 are signed up this year.
“We can’t have my best players on the field all the time,” he said. “We got to get them some rest. So I have to see who will step up here and earn a spot.”
Playing through the whistle is a cliché coaches often use to motivate players.
David Gann, the Mountaineers’ new head coach, is keeping track of how many times his players don’t do it.
North Murray made coaching changes last year after an 0-10 finish in 2011. Larry Cornelius was fired and Gann, an offensive coordinator at Ringgold, was hired in April.
After two weeks of spring practices and a full summer of activities and camps, Gann and his players should be past the getting-to-know-you segment.
“What we’re doing now is polishing what we know,” he said. “For instance, the linemen know what to do versus a certain defense, but now we’re adding stunt blitzes and other stuff.”
North Murray opens the season Aug. 31 against Southeast Whitfield, but Gann wants to see improvement in how his players “finish” well before then. Gann said he has something called “reminders” — in this case, up-down drills — to motivate his players.
“Every time someone breaks the huddle wrong or doesn’t finish on a play, we keep track and do them at the end of practice,” he said.
Two seniors who were on the team during North Murray’s 1-19 stretch in 2010 and 2011, the school’s first two varsity seasons, are in agreement on the work that needs to be done between now and the season opener.
“We still haven’t figured out how to hustle and finish plays,” said senior Tino Hernandez, a wide receiver/safety. “We aren’t as mentally or physically focused as we need to be.”
Said senior athlete Jared Campbell, “I think we’re more into character building and breaking bad habits, like jogging to the ball and being lazy in the weight room. Coach Gann has done some stuff that has really broken us down.”
The Catamounts have less time to prepare than other local teams.
Coach Matt Land sees it as an advantage.
Dalton began preseason workouts the same day as all other teams across the state but will begin its season Aug. 24 at Ringgold. Most teams will start Aug. 31, including every other area school. With fewer days to practice, one would think it serves as a hindrance rather than a help.
Land sees it the opposite way.
“I think that has been an advantage for us, giving us more urgency,” he said. “I think all our guys are aware each workout means more for down the road because we know we have one less week than the other guys.”
Conditioning and making the most of each second are high on Dalton’s priority list this preseason.
“That’s something coach Land keeps preaching,” senior end Robert Hardaway said. “We don’t have as much time and need to work as hard as we can while we’re out there.”
On Aug. 1, Land and his coaching staff can truly start fitting puzzle pieces into openings. He’s less focused on schemes and more on who will be prepared to play.
“(Then) we’re going to put pads on and find out who really can play,” he said, noting the seven-on-seven tournaments this summer do not play into the Cats’ run-first style.
“We’re only going to play three spread teams this year and the other seven will run the football. I don’t think it’s so much the Xs and Os. I think the real question is the Jimmys and the Joes.”
Dalton would have finished 8-3 last season, but was forced to forfeit four regular-season victories in which an ineligible player was used. The Cats still made the state playoffs, but lost in the opening round.
Last season the Indians were flooded with injuries, and coach John Hammond wants to use this preseason to protect against a repeat of that trouble.
The Indians have moved down to Class 2A in the GHSA’s new six-class format. They finished 2-8 last year while competing in Class 3A, and it certainly didn’t help that the injury bug bit everywhere from the quarterback to the trenches.
“We lost (starting quarterback Brady Todd) in the first scrimmage (with a broken collarbone), a fullback with a broken shin, a lineman with an ACL, an inside linebacker with an ACL,” Hammond said.
Todd said the small numbers also contributed to the team’s struggles. The Indians started with around 40 players last preseason. Hammond said there are around 50 this year.
“We had a few people fall but mostly didn’t have that many players,” Todd said. “We’re trying to fit people in where we can, but I’m not sure if we can. That’s one of the goals, is trying to fit players in places.”
While Todd is back and healthy for 2012, his offensive line will look different.
“Right now on the offensive side of the football, we’re looking to replace four starters on the offensive line,” Hammond said.
And just in case the injuries begin piling on again this fall, Hammond wants to have proven backups ready to step in and keep the drum beating to the same rhythm.
“Our biggest issue in our first two days is finding some depth and developing some depth,” he said. “On the defensive side, we’ve got a bunch of kids back. We’re still going to be the same type of team. So it’s not as big a deal on that side as it is on the offensive side. The two biggest issues are on our offensive and defensive line and building depth.”