RAINSVILLE — WQSB FM and Mountain Valley News teamed up to bring high school football teams together for DeKalb/Jackson County Football Media Day at DeKalb County Schools Coliseum on Friday.

Coaches and players representing fifteen football programs from DeKalb County and Jackson County appeared in front of area media members to discuss the 2020 season.

Here’s a look at what DeKalb coaches and players had to say during their media availability at Friday’s event:

Wildcats’ health key to improvement in 2020

Wildcats coach Chris Elmore discussed the importance of the team’s health being among the significant factors in how the program can add to the success it had last season. He was joined by senior quarterback J.D. Blalock and senior running back Hunter Love during Fort Payne’s availability.

Fort Payne finished 9-3 last season with an appearance in the second round of the state playoffs for the first time since 2011.

“We have to stay healthy,” Elmore said. “Hunter and J.D. in particular. We’ll lose quite a bit from our team if we don’t have these guys.”

Both Blalock and Love cited capturing a third straight region championship as a goal for the 2020 season.

Love led the Wildcats in rushing with 1,372 yards on 215 attempts for a six-yards-per-carry average with 20 touchdowns in 2019. He finished 300 yards shy of the program’s single-season rushing record held by Desmond Turner.

Blalock completed 76 of 126 passes for 1,060 yards and 10 TDs last season. Elmore praised Blalock’s offseason progression. 

“Normally time off would hurt a quarterback, but it’s been different for J.D.,” the coach said. “He’s improved so much from last year.

“...J.D. is throwing the ball so much harder, so much farther and making the right decisions. He has a really good running back behind him that makes his job easier. They make each other better.”

Elmore was asked about the challenges the team faces in the non-region portion of its schedule. He said there was some difficulty in filling in the non-region portion this season, but added that playing Athens and Gadsden City early in the season will help the Wildcats gauge their stance and allow improvement.

Elmore also noted last year’s second-round playoff game against then-defending Class 6A state champion Pinson Valley as an important marker for the state of Fort Payne’s football program.

“Playing Pinson Valley last year, I think our players saw that we’re not that far from [competing at that level],” Elmore said. 

 

Lions practicing discipline 

For Crossville to turn the 2020 season into one for showing marked improvement, coach Dusty Darnell said it will require the Lions to cut down on their mistakes by being more disciplined when they take the field.

“Last year we were (playing) in some close games and we’d have a blown assignment. We need to be disciplined and not shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said.

The Lions return 17 seniors who made major contributions last season. Darnell said the team’s depth chart is as deep as it’s been in his three-year tenure leading the program.

Darnell said he’s expecting a lot out of the veterans in place this season, and added that missing out on spring practices due to rising concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t “that big of a deal” due to the team’s experience.

“When we heard about the (AHSAA’s) decision to play, we were ready to get to work,” senior Harley Hicks said.

Crossville, who will play in Class 5A’s Region 7 this season, prepares its players to play both offense and defense. Darnell said he and his coaching staff have been working to get more players into the program.

The Lions went 2-8 overall and 1-5 in 5A, Region 6 competition last season, missing the postseason for a second straight year. 

Now a member of 5A’s Region 7, Crossville will compete against Boaz, Douglas, Fairview, Guntersville, Sardis and West Point.

Darnell said the team had great player participation in early morning summer workouts and that everyone was glad to return to the weight room after the springtime suspension of athletic activities.

 

Ledbetter: Bears are stronger, faster

Plainview coach Nick Ledbetter said he’s seen his players improve their fitness levels to new heights during this offseason’s workouts.

“We feel like we’re stronger and faster than we’ve been,” he said during the Bears’ media availability Friday.  

Plainview hopes to turn its physical development into wins this fall. Last season, the Bears finished 3-7, including a 2-4 mark in region play. 

Ledbetter said he feels like junior quarterback Noah White can help the Bears’ offense excel through the use of the run-pass option. 

“(White) brings a lot of tools to the game that opens the offense,” Ledbetter said, adding that White and senior Brody McCurdy accounted for 80% of the team’s offensive production with the football in their hands last year. 

McCurdy’s work as a defensive lineman and White’s presence in the secondary will also be beneficial to the Bears’ 2020 success. 

“For a school our size, (McCurdy and White) stand out on both sides of the ball,” Ledbetter said.

During his time at the microphone Ledbetter addressed how the turnover ratio was a setback for the Bears last season and the importance it will play this year. 

“We have to take care of the football,” he said. “...We lost some games late in the season last year because of turnovers.”

 

Panthers using sense of urgency

First-year head coach Daniel Garrett is looking for Collinsville to pick up Class 3A competition where it left off in 2A.

The Panthers finished in the semifinal round of the 2A state playoffs last season, and after an offseason relocation to 3A, they are hoping to capitalize on the move after enduring an unusual offseason of preparation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“(Our mindset) is on our culture and a sense of urgency,” Garrett said. “...We’re going to do it with enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”  

In February, veteran coach Ernie Willingham announced his retirement following the end of the 2019-20 school year. Collinsville began its coaching search and offered Garrett the position before Gov. Kay Ivey’s mandated statewide shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The offseason challenges Garrett knew he and the Panthers could be facing didn’t deter him from accepting the position. 

“I knew what we were getting into,” he said, noting his plan to communicate with coaching staff and players as much as possible using technology throughout the shutdown.

Garrett’s first move was to establish a leadership council for the team. Quarterback Dalton Hughes and tight end Blake Sparks were among the players selected to the council and joined Garrett in representing Collinsville at the media day event.

“It all starts with doing the little things right,” Sparks said of building success in 2020. “Everyone who is there has to do their job.”

In just a few months working with the Panthers, Garrett’s enthusiastic approach to coaching has already made waves. 

“Coach Garrett pushes us to be better every single day and that’s what I like most about him,” Hughes said.

Before Collinsville wrapped its media session, Garrett made it clear what expectations were going to be for the program’s future.

“We want to be elite,” he said. “That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be.”

 

Rams cultivating depth 

Sylvania coach Matt Putnam said the Rams must continue the skill development of its players for the program to reach the next stage of success.

“We have a good senior class and a good junior class behind them,” Putnam said. “We have to build depth in order to get to that next level.”

Sylvania returns its starting offensive line from last season. Skylar Venable, Zander Wooten, Clayton Wilks, Sydney Dekker and Caiden Tuttle are the front five looking to help give Sylvania’s backs and receivers playmaking opportunities. 

Putnam said Hunter Brooks, Will Smothers and Blake Phillips will be major contributors to the O-line also.

“They’re athletic and ready to get after it,” Putnam said. “I’m looking forward to what they can do this year.”

The Rams finished with a 7-4 overall record last season, including a 4-2 mark in region competition, and made an appearance in the first round of the 3A state playoffs. 

Putnam said he was impressed with how his players handled this offseason after missing out on spring practices.

“Our guys have handled the adversity better than I would have at their age,” Putnam said.

 

Bulldogs looking for leaders 

As Geraldine’s preseason game against Piedmont draws closer, coach Brad Waldrop hopes leaders will emerge from his young team and help guide the Bulldogs in the right direction.

The Bulldogs produced a lot of success in 2019, advancing to the third round of the state playoffs for the first time since 2000. They finished with an 8-5 record and a 5-1 mark in region play.

Geraldine lost several key players to graduation.

“We’re really young,” Waldrop said. “We have a lot of things to figure out between now and kickoff. ...There’s no substitute for experience.”

Gone are quarterback D.J. Graham and fellow skill players Kyle Thackerson, Chase Kermondy, Jackson Bearden, Brandon East, Austin Hall, Bo Harper and Austin King, all of which provided defensive stability as well.

The Bulldogs graduated 11 seniors and have seven incoming seniors in play for this season. 

“We’re still looking for some leadership,” Waldrop said. “It may be one guy or two who steps forward and helps lead us. I’d like it to be 11.”

As players have been separated in small groups for most of the summer, Waldrop said establishing continuity among players when they come together to run plays has been the most difficult aspect of performing summer workouts under COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

Geraldine’s Region 7 of Class 3A has a new look this season. Pisgah, New Hope and Susan Moore have been replaced by fellow DeKalb teams Fyffe and Collinsville and Asbury of Marshall County. DeKalb’s Plainview and Sylvania remain in the region, as does Brindlee Mountain of Marshall County.

“Our region has always been competitive,” Waldrop said. “We expect a (tough) ballgame every Friday night.”

 

Fyffe not looking to change approach

Just because the Fyffe Red Devils are making the move to compete in Class 3A, doesn’t mean they’ll be making any drastic changes to their operation.

Coach Paul Benefield and Co. will continue employing the characteristics that have earned them back-to-back state championships and years of success: a methodical run game and stingy defense.

“We’re not going to change anything,” Benefield said. “We have quality opponents, we’re playing bigger schools but we’re not going to change anything.

“Our players are looking forward to the challenges. We’ll be competitive.”

As the two-time defending 2A champion Red Devils advance to 3A’s Region 7, their move comes with some marquee contests, including a rematch with fellow 3A-inductee Collinsville and a visit to Class 6A’s Scottsboro.

Fyffe defeated Collinsville 21-0 in the 2A semifinal round last year. The two square off in a region contest Friday, Sept. 4 in Collinsville.

The Red Devils travel to Scottsboro for their regular-season finale Friday, Oct. 30.

“Hopefully our guys will take every game to heart,” Benefield said. “We need to take every day as a blessing but we don’t always do that.”

 

Ider wants execution, endurance on its side

As Ider closed out media day Friday afternoon, second-year coach Miles Keith addressed two factors he believes will separate the best teams from the rest of the pack once the season begins: execution and endurance level. 

“We want to be one of those teams,” Keith said.

The Hornets look to rebound from a 2-8 season in 2019. He said the maturity level he’s seen from his players this offseason will go a long way in getting the team moving in the right direction.

“We put five good months (of work) in,” Keith said, mixing his humor into his testament by adding, “I put them in the weight room and locked the door for five months.

“(Players) understand how big conditioning is to me. When we’re running, we don’t lean over. If someone does, we start the drill over.” 

Keith touted the development of Ider’s offense, saying it has made necessary adjustments to get the ball in the hands of its playmakers.

Offensive linemen Chase Flannigan, Colton Crane and Kyler Chapman return in front of quarterback Matt Norman. Running back Ben Smith, tight end Jesse Massey and wide receiver Skylar Hawkins also return and add to the offensive potential. 

“We’re a lot faster this year than last year,” Keith said. “We’re going to have to use every bit of that from the start.”

  

Tigers’ weight training key to health 

The Valley Head Tigers have control over their practice time and they want to do their best to control their health as well.

“Everyone has a level of focus right now to take advantage of everything,” coach Heath Vincent said. 

Vincent said the Tigers’ commitment to the program’s weight training schedule has made him proud and said it must continue for the team to ensure itself the best chance for success in Class 1A competition.

Senior Luke Harrison said he’s lost nearly 50 pounds this offseason in an effort to improve his health and be as sharp as he can for his final run at Valley Head.

Harrison and Levi Demarco are back on the offensive line to help keep the Tigers’ run game churning. 

Senior Jordan Burt returns at quarterback. He led the team in rushing last season with 1,445 yards on 130 carries (11 yards per attempt) with 23 touchdowns.

Junior fullback Roger McMahan and halfback Bryson Morgan, a senior, will join Burt in fueling the run game. Morgan steps in for the graduated Marlonn Trinidad. Trinidad rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year.

Valley Head closed 2019 with a 6-5 record and a first-round state playoff appearance. It was the Tigers’ first postseason showing in four years.

The Tigers remain in 1A’s Region 7 after the AHSAA’s offseason realignment, but are joined by some new opponents. Decatur Heritage Christian, Falkville and R.A. Hubbard were removed from the region and replaced by Appalachian, Cedar Bluff and Sumiton Christian. Woodville, Gaylesville and Coosa Christian remain in the region.

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