What started as a fun idea has turned into a tradition and the one event I get asked about more than any other that I cover.
Once again, as high school football teams across Tennessee were allowed to begin practicing in full pads Monday, for the 11th straight year I crammed as many area schools as I could into one day. Chattanooga Christian and Soddy-Daisy were out of town at camps, while Georgia and Alabama teams aren’t allowed to go in full pads for another week.
It also dawned on me as I left my house Monday morning that with scrimmages, jamborees and the actual season kicking off, there will be prep football every Friday night from this week until mid-December.
7:55 a.m., Walker Valley: The sign hanging over the practice field at Walker Valley High School states, “Go hard or go home.” It does not mention punctuality, however.
Several stragglers are still putting on their pads, causing Mustangs coach Ted Lockerby to grit his teeth and yell, “You guys are already late!”
There is a new assistant coach. Former Soddy-Daisy head coach Glen Ryan, who had been an assistant at East Paulding (Ga.) High the last four years, is now the Mustangs’ offensive coordinator.
“Good to be back home,” Ryan said.
8:23, Cleveland: Immediately noticeable are the new state-title banners from 1968, ’93, ’94 and ’95, hung between the locker room and the coaches’ office. There also are action photos and motivational phrases on the walls.
“There’s been a lot of tradition in this program, but you wouldn’t have known it walking through the fieldhouse,” coach E.K. Slaughter says. “We wanted to give the kids a sense of pride in the program.”
Slaughter meets with the defensive backs before going to the practice field and reminds them, “You have pads on today, so the word ‘physical’ will be used a lot.”
8:41: When Danny Wilson was coaching at Cleveland he once told me to try breakfast at The Chef. I’m certain of two things — Danny Wilson knows how to scheme up a defense and he knows where the best breakfast can be found any place where he’s lived. The biscuit is the size of a cat’s head and my faith in Danny is confirmed.
8:45, Bradley Central: On the hill above the game field, the drum corps is practicing so it at least sounds like football time. On the field, offensive line coach Matt Bowman blows the whistle to stop a drill and then yells, “I hear a lot of slapping but not a lot of popping!”
On the next snap, there is plenty of popping and one lineman drives his opponent onto his back.
Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Coach Shannon Williams, center, walks with his players from the Ooltewah High School gym to the practice field on Monday night after warming up. The Ooltewah High School football team practiced during intermittent rain on Monday evening after delaying practice due to lightning.
9:19, Grace Academy: The Golden Eagles are in four stations — running backs, quarterbacks, offensive linemen and receivers. New head coach Bob Ateca is running a fast-paced first 20 minutes, and an assistant coach already has dismissed one player out of drills.
Ateca, without looking back, yells, “Do what you’re told or go home!”
9:39, Tyner: As has been the case in the previous prep tours, you can hear the Rams practicing before you see them practicing.
Head coach Wayne Turner is teaching offensive linemen some techniques, then excites the entire team by saying, “Let’s do this,” then setting up the first scrimmage of the preseason.
One linebacker calls out, “Turn us loose, ‘T!’ Put us to work!”
With the first-team defense going against the scout-team offense, it’s apparent from the first snap that Tyner’s defense is pretty salty.
10:09, Brainerd: New head coach Stanley Jackson has four new assistants, including former all-state Panthers quarterback Tyrus Ward. At every station coaches can be heard yelling excitedly. Pads ware popping. Players are loud and energetic.
New linebackers coach Demetric Armstead calls out to his players, “Who wants to win a job today?” Once he begins taking players to one-on-one in drills, a violently physical 10 minutes follow. There are several full-speed collisions and several players knocked to the ground.
Jackson smiles during the drill and says simply, “We will be physical.”
10:28, Boyd-Buchanan: Buccaneers trainer Christy Murray checks the heat index and reports it at 102.9. The TSSAA requires drills to stop at 104 degrees. The Bucs are in a first-team-defense vs. scout-team-offense drill, and coach Grant Reynolds stops action and forces the defense to do up-downs for “a lack of effort.”
One defensive lineman pauses before the next snap, bends over and throws up.
10:57, Hixson: The Wildcats are just taking the field for defensive drills after spending the morning focusing on the offense. Coaches are excited because for the first time in recent memory, they have enough bodies for three groups of five offensive linemen to work in the drills. Only one of the 15 is a senior and junior Cameron Hill (6-foot-3, 265) should be a solid tackle to run behind.
11:34, Red Bank: The Lions are leaving the field, and coach Tim Daniels laments the lack of experience returning.
“We have no carry-over for the first time since my first or second year,” Daniels says, “There’s a whole lot of work to be done.”
12:25 p.m., Baylor: The Red Raiders have finished morning workouts, and the staff is meeting in the dining hall to discuss the afternoon practice.
“The great thing about having so many guys back is that we can run through our practices at a pretty quick tempo,” coach Phil Massey says. “It’s night and day where we are this year compared to last year in terms of physical and mental approach to the game.”
Staff photo by Allison Kwesell/Chattanooga Times Free Press William Hughes runs drills during the first practice of the season in full pads at Brainerd High School.
1:30, Signal Mountain: Between morning and afternoon sessions, head coach Bill Price and new defensive backs coach Bumper Reese discuss an issue several teams would covet — how to get all their talent on the field at the same time.
“I just keep telling the kids to work hard and be ready for Week 1,” Price says. “We’re getting a lot of attention and there’s a lot of expectations up here, but we can’t afford to listen to that and not work hard at every practice.”
Says Reese, who was on the staff at Red Bank during the Lions’ state-title season in 2000: “For a 2A school to have this kind of talent is a luxury. I’m spoiled already.”
3:30, Notre Dame: Thunderstorms in the area moved the Irish into the gym, where they spent the afternoon session working on defensive drills.
“Any kind of change of pace for the kids is something they like. We probably would have come in the gym anyway because of the heat index,” coach Josh Sellers says.
3:53, McCallie: The Blue Tornado meet in the “Cage” — a small auditorium where coaches meet — and are going over new offensive and defensive sets before heading to the practice field.
“We’ve been in 7-on-7 the last couple of weeks, and today was a chance for us to look at installing our running game and stopping the run,” McCallie coach Rick Whitt says.
4:35, Central: The thunderstorms that have moved through the area have knocked out the power and caused Purple Pounders coaches to push practice back two hours later than planned. New head coach Sam Montgomery will have more than 80 players to begin practice and says his staff will change everything from offensive and defensive schemes to uniforms and “even the way we stretch before practice. These kids really want to be a part of a winning program.”
5:09, Ooltewah: It’s pouring outside but first-year coach Shannon Williams is determined to get his team onto the field.
“We’ll have somebody monitoring for lightning, but if it’s just raining we need to go out on the field and get some work done,” Williams says.
The Owls return only five starters and 12 total lettermen, and new defensive coordinator Eric Spann arrived just last week. They also face an unforgiving schedule that starts with Tyner and includes two trips to Nashville and one to Knoxville before wrapping up with five consecutive district games.
5:46, East Hamilton: Although the thunderstorms have kept the varsity off the practice field, signups for the younger guys are taking place in the gym. Numbers will not be a problem in the future for the Hurricanes.
6:18, East Ridge: The lightning dancing across the sky has left the Pioneers to seek shelter for a second time in the last hour. While the team waits out the storm in the locker room, coaches sit in their office and watch the weather radar online. The team began practice with special-teams work.
“Our punt team cost us two games last year, so we wanted to work on getting better there right away,” Pioneers coach Mike Martin says.
6:53, Howard: The Hustlin’ Tigers will stay together on campus all week for camp. Inclement weather has pushed their evening practice into the gym.
“We’ve had camp every year since I got here, and it’s really helped because some of our kids have trouble getting back and forth here twice a day,” Howard coach Alvin Tarver says. “Plus we make sure we know where they are, get them fed three good meals and can make sure they get their rest this whole week.”
Tarver is excited about the return of all-state linebacker Eric McCullough, who missed much of last season with a back injury.
Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell/Chattanooga Times Free Press Dequan Hughes runs through drills during the season's first practice in full pads at Boyd-Buchanan High School.
7:17, Lookout Valley: An old problem has returned for the Yello Jackets, who have just 22 players on the first day. The team had around 30 each of the last three years but have only two starters back on both sides, and the drop in numbers makes for serious depth concerns.
7:47 (EDT), Marion County: The temperature reading on a bank just blocks from the school flashes 71 degrees. Warriors coaches already are impressed with sophomore quarterback Matt Zeman, who seems to have a knack for making the right reads in the veer offense. Senior Derrick Tucker, who played offensive guard the last three years, has been moved to fullback and the experiment seems to being paying off.
“He’s a big, strong kid who moves pretty well,” coach Troy Boeck says. “He’s wanted to make that move for a while, but to his credit he just stayed quiet and did his job at guard until we had someone else who could take that spot and allow him to go to fullback.”
8:18, South Pittsburg: Despite the loss of four all-state players, there is a relaxed confidence at each of the Pirates’ four group stations. Junior running back Jonathan Sellers breaks one long run during a scrimmage, then slows just enough to allow his younger brother, freshman Anthony, to close in before lowering his shoulder and bowling him over.
“We did lose some guys who can play, but we’ve got a lot of kids who have experience and there’s still talent here,” coach Vic Grider says. “We’re only going once a day because we’ve got 27 days before our first game. Between now and then we’ve also got three scrimmages and a jamboree, so if we’re not ready by then I should be fired.”
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...