published Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

Prep pads practice under way

Coach Mark Mariakis addresses his players after practice at Ridgeland High School on Monday.
Coach Mark Mariakis addresses his players after practice at Ridgeland High School on Monday.
Photo by Alex Washburn.

Between the heat and the fact that most teams had just one evening practice because of teachers' in-service, this year's annual tour of area high school football programs was a bit more challenging. But on the first day that teams in Tennessee and Georgia were allowed to begin practicing in full pads, the 12th tour again stoked excitement for the season.

With scrimmages beginning this Friday, jamborees being played the following weekend and actual games just three weeks away, we will have prep football action from now into December.

While Chattanooga Christian, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and Soddy-Daisy were at out-of-town camps, and Alabama schools are not allowed to begin practicing in pads until later this week, here is what I learned after a little more than 14 hours and 329 miles of traveling to 21 area schools Monday:

(All times Eastern)

6:39 a.m., Notre Dame -- As I turn onto the campus, the stadium lights in the early-morning darkness catch my eye. The Irish lost 15 seniors and 18 of the 45 players on the roster are freshmen. The team has been on the game field for more than 30 minutes, and offensive line coach David Church already is fed up with repeating himself to one freshman.

"Get down!" Church barks as the young lineman bends awkwardly into his stance. "You can get as mad as you want at me, but I'm going to ride you until you get it right."

7:08, Ridgeland -- The Panthers will take care of their picture day first, then begin practicing at 9 before taking a break and then leaving for a three-day camp out of town.

"We don't get a whole lot done as far as football is concerned right now," Panthers coach Mark Mariakis says. "We're still getting the paperwork on physicals and all kinds of late or last-minute things taken care of. That's why it will be good to get out of town as a team and focus on the game."

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Ridgeland likely will start as many as 10 sophomores and have two transfers -- safety Von Bell from Central and quarterback Darrell Bridges from Red Bank -- whom coaches are anxious to see in pads.

7:38, Red Bank -- The Lions have divided into four groups and head coach Tim Daniels is working with the offensive line. After a few final tips, Daniels blows his whistle and the groups converge at midfield, where they begin the "bull in a ring" drill in which two players square off and try to push the other outside the ring. The first couple of exchanges create loud crashes that can be heard across the field, but after two smaller players collide, an assistant coach yells, "Did two people even hit just then?"

The next exchange brings with it the desired sound of pads violently colliding.

7:59, Baylor -- The kickers are on the game field practicing 25-yard field goals. The other players, who ate breakfast at 6:45 and began lifting weights at 7:15, will emerge from the locker room minutes later for the two-hour morning practice scheduled to begin at 8:30.

The Red Raiders, who lost the Division II-AA state championship game in the closing seconds last season, return 10 offensive and eight defensive starters.

"We know who the stars are and who we can count on for the most part," coach Phil Massey says. "What we're looking to find out this week are the ones that can give us quality depth."

8:33, Boyd-Buchanan -- The morning practices this week will focus on defensive work, and the first 20 minutes of each day are spent on proper tackling techniques.

Coach Grant Reynolds, who began with the Buccaneers as their defensive coordinator, was frustrated by sloppy tackling early and now is at his wit's end with younger players on the scout team who have trouble remembering where to line up on certain plays.

"I hate scout team," Reynolds says to nobody in particular. "Hate it."

The Bucs will finish a nearly two-hour practice with four sets of five 40-yard sprints. After each set, the players are given two minutes to rest before beginning again. The Bucs have plenty of experience returning, including running back Chase Reed and sophomore quarterback Jim Cardwell, who helped lead the team to the state semifinals as a rare freshman starter.

9:07, Grace Academy -- The heat and humidity have officially arrived as the Golden Eagles are working on kickoff assignments. Grace returns eight starters to both sides of the ball, but with fewer than 30 players depth will be a concern.

9:46, McCallie -- Coming out of a water break, the Blue Tornado split into two groups and begin an "Oklahoma" drill in which a defensive lineman must fight off a blocker and make the tackle before the running back shoots through a narrow alley of plastic cones. As senior Tye Youngblood, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound college prospect, steps in for his turn, first-year head coach Bubba Simmons calls out for a new offensive lineman: "We need somebody in here who can block Youngblood."

The upgrade is of little help as Youngblood tosses aside the blocker on three straight plays and makes the tackle in the backfield. The last hit jars the ball free from the runner and Youngblood slams the back to the ground as the ball bounces away.

1:32 p.m., Walker Valley -- The team won't practice until later in the day and coach Ted Lockerby says the focus will be on finding out which younger players are ready to contribute. With just over 40 varsity players and 30 freshmen, depth for the Mustangs likely will come from the freshmen.

2:13, Cleveland -- Players are beginning to trickle into the fieldhouse, with practice set to begin in less than an hour. The busiest member of the team is first-year manager Abi Dye, a junior who plans to major in sports medicine. Dye stands in the equipment room filling three large coolers and 18 sports bottles with ice water.

"This probably still won't be enough," says Dye, whose brother Cliff played on the Blue Raiders' offensive line three years ago. "The only thing I get nervous about is the coaches yelling at me if I mess something up. I hope that doesn't happen, because I've seen how they are with the players when they get in the moment."

2:33, Bradley Central -- I'm not sure how accurate it is, but the flashing neon sign outside the school that announces the time, temperature and school activities says it's 100 degrees. The Bears open the season in three weeks against Polk County.

"We'll basically start preparing for that game now," coach Damon Floyd says. "We'll work on stopping the run a whole lot this week and may not even throw a pass, because we know that's what we'll get against Polk."

3:03, Ooltewah -- With 7-on-7 passing scrimmages now behind the team, and senior Bradley Stephens emerging as the likely starter at quarterback, Owls coach Shannon Williams is eager to see the offensive and defensive lines at work.

"That's where you win games and that's where we have the most questions," Williams says. "We'll start working on blocking and tackling right away because there really isn't time to do much more than the basic fundamentals before the season starts now."

3:29, East Hamilton -- The plan to go out early has been scrapped because of the heat, so the Hurricanes will have to wait several hours before taking the field. As the team prepares for its third year of varsity competition, the players are noticeably stronger and more athletic looking.

"We've done as much as we can against foam pads and air," coach Ted Gatewood says. "I'm ready to get out there and find out who is shy and who isn't. The shy ones will get to stand on the sideline next to me a lot, because we want guys who want to hit."

4:00, Tyner -- Coach Wayne Turner swears his players have seen the kinder, gentler side of his personality during summer workouts and 7-on-7 drills.

"I haven't had to yell as much yet," Turner says with an evil grin. "In fact, I don't think I've yelled but once all summer. We've looked pretty good, but then again there's not a whole lot they can screw up until now. It's not like they've missed blocks yet, so we'll see how long that lasts."

Whether that's because of so many players returning with game experience or simply Turner mellowing with age is debatable. But when asked if his players would agree with his yelling assessment, Turner simply grins and says, "Maybe."

4:19, Silverdale Baptist -- With only five seniors and four juniors on the roster, the Seahawks will rely on about 30 underclassmen to step up if they are to challenge for a playoff spot in Al Rogers' first season as coach.

While the sophomore class will be the backbone of the team for years to come, junior quarterback Spencer Mossberg, who is entering his third year as the starter, is the key to this season.

4:45, Central -- It hasn't taken John Allen long to begin making his mark on the program. As he enters his first season coaching the Purple Pounders, the well-traveled Allen already has spent $4,500 on locker-room renovations -- new lockers and carpet and a fresh coat of paint on all the walls -- as well as $16,000 on a new state-of-the-art weight room.

The new attitude has helped Allen build the roster to an impressive 93 players, including 34 juniors, 29 freshmen and just 11 seniors.

"We wanted to give the kids something to be proud of, and we're looking to build with the young guys," Allen says. "They didn't even have a blocking sled when I got here, but now we have a new one of those and a lot of other reasons to be proud already."

5:19, Hixson -- With the heat index hitting 103, the players have been instructed to take off their helmets and shoulder pads before continuing to practice. Coach Houston White has told players they can take water breaks as needed and has ice towels ready to use as well.

The team had a three-day camp at the school last week to begin installing plays, and it already is paying off as players already know their assignments as practice begins.

"It was great. The kids loved it last week," White says. "I got a knock on my door at 6 a.m. the second day of camp, and it was the whole team outside ready to start running, about 30 minutes earlier than we had planned. So the next day, I decided I would wake them up and we used air horns to jolt them out of bed at 3:30 in the morning for a practice on the game field under the lights. We had fun with it."

6:01, Signal Mountain -- The two-hour practice session is just ending, and despite the heat Eagles coach Bill Price can hardly contain his excitement.

"We found us a running back," Price says with a smile. "Tim McClendon can play."

McClendon is a 6-foot-2, 245-pound transfer from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe who showed lots of promise going into last season before injuring his knee early in the second half of the season opener. If he stays healthy, he not only will start in the offensive backfield but looks ready to become a two-way star at linebacker as well.

6:42, Howard -- As soon as I arrive, one offensive lineman flinches for what would be a procedure penalty in a game situation, causing the entire line to have to do five up-downs. After two crisp offensive plays, a fumble causes the backs to have to do their own up-downs as coaches remind them loudly about how costly turnovers and mental mistakes can be.

It becomes clear early on why two-way lineman Brandon Walters (6-foot-7, 280) is drawing attention from college scouts.

7:09, Lookout Valley -- The Yellow Jackets are sporting a new paint scheme on their helmets this year -- dull black paint similar to the University of Oregon's scheme. Numbers are always the concern here, but coach Tony Webb always looks for the positives.

"The good thing is the kids get a lot of reps," Webb says. "We'll have a lot of the same 11 starters playing offense and defense, but that's usually the case with us."

7:43, Marion County -- Players are stretched out in two lines, forming an alley for what they call the "Warrior drill." One player must fight through a gauntlet of three blockers before getting to the ballc arrier and making the tackle.

The Warriors have just five seniors on the team, but of the 17 juniors, nearly all will start or get significant playing time.

"We've got a few younger guys like [freshman fullback] Blake Zeman who will definitely play, but we like that junior group," coach Troy Boeck says. "The most encouraging thing for us is that two years ago we only had five players who could run a sub-5.0 in the 40-yard dash and now we have 25 who can. Speed always helps."

The junior class includes Zeman's older brother, Matt, who will play quarterback and outside linebacker.

8:05, South Pittsburg -- Shortly after taking a break, new offensive lineman D.J. Roberson shows why coaches are so high on his potential. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Roberson, a transfer from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, gets his hands on all-state middle linebacker Coltin Blevins, who was the defensive MVP of last year's state title game, and plants him on his back.

"He's had about six of those kind of pancake blocks since we started today," coach Vic Grider says. "I love his attitude -- his excitement to hit people and win. I can go ahead and say we've had some pretty good linemen around here, but I don't remember one like him. It's going to take a man to move him."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having 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, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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