New Marion County coach Ricky Ross had a speech all prepared for Blake Zeman, a 2013 Tennessee Mr. Football finalist.
If there had been the first sign of conceit or lack of respect, the coach was going to remind Zeman that he had been a Mr. Football finalist and not a Mr. Football winner and ask if he was satisfied with getting there or if he wanted to win the award.
"I've been a bridesmaid six times and a winner once, and there's all the difference in the world in the way you feel," said Ross, formerly a defensive coordinator at Georgia power Calhoun.
Zeman has yet to hear that train of thought from Ross, and the coach is delighted that he never has had cause to use it.
"He's the most respectful young man, almost so respectful that I'm anxious to see him be nasty in a game," Ross said.
It's a new scenario for Zeman and his fellow Marion County seniors, who are working with their third head coach in four years.
"I know the way we do things is unlike what he's done in the past, from the way we stretch to the way we maintain lockers," Ross said. "Everything is so different from what it was, and he doesn't question it an ounce. He takes everything I tell him and buys into it when he has every reason to challenge it."
One of the coach's first requests was for the 2013 star to shed some pounds.
"I lost some weight," Zeman said. "It's something I wanted to do, too. Get quicker, faster, and I am moving better with less weight."
After looking at video from last season, Ross felt Zeman, a physical player, played too heavy. So Zeman went from 245 to 225.
"If he breaks a 60-yarder, I want him running north-south and not looking over his shoulder," Ross said.
Zeman ran for more than 1,600 yards and 26 touchdowns and added 130 tackles, including 30 for lost yardage, as a linebacker, but he took all that in humble fashion.
"I guess I had a great year, but I'm not much of a bragger," he said. "I just like to go out and play football with my friends. It's about the team. I had some great linemen and there were some other backs that took the focus off me, and I had a great defensive line in front of me. I had a team that would push me. We pushed each other to get better."
For all his accolades, Zeman is still more interested in "we" than "me."
"I've come to learn that it takes more than one person to succeed," he said. "On a team you're only as strong as your weakest link. It's better to have the whole team pushing each other and accomplish things together. It just feels better."
And that type thought process has endeared him to his coach.
"I do think he's a very good player, but I think he's a better person," Ross said.
- Ward Gossett
MARION COUNTY WARRIORS
Head coach: Ricky Ross (first year here and overall)
Last year: 10-3; lost to Trousdale County in third round of Class 2A playoffs
Returning starters (O/D/K): 5/5/0
(all home games at 8 Eastern unless noted)
Aug. 21 - Grundy County
Aug. 29 - at Bledsoe County
Sept. 5 - Whitwell*
Sept. 12 - at Central, 7:30
Sept. 19 - Lookout Valley*
Sept. 26 - at Sequatchie County
Oct. 3 - vs. Sale Creek at Finley*
Oct. 10 - Copper Basin
Oct. 24 - Chattanooga Christian
Oct. 31 - at South Pittsburg*
* District 6-A game
RB/LB Blake Zeman (5-10, 220, Sr.) was the heart of the Warriors offensively and defensively and was a state Mr. Football finalist. Just as important this year will be RB/DB Deion Riley (5-8, 175, Sr.). Much of what they accomplished came behind OL/DL Hayden Tudors (6-0, 230, Sr.). "Blake is a three-year starter - a big, strong guy," Ross said. "All three have the experience. Tudors is a hard worker and Riley gets the most out of his ability and he plays the game hard."
WR/FS Blake Brooks (6-0, 185, Sr.) has worked hard in the weight room and Ross says he has gotten bigger, stronger and faster. He'll be a key in the kick- and punt-return game. Ross said no one had outworked QB Bryce Massengale (6-2, 175, Jr.) and noted that Massengale had become a great team leader. LB/FB Hunter McClain (5-11, 200, So.) will provide depth at fullback and at linebacker. "People are going to be surprised when they see him," Ross said.
Ross actually is in his second job as a head football coach. The former Calhoun (Ga.) defensive coordinator had accepted the job of succeeding Vic Grider at South Pittsburg but resigned two months later. He wound up taking the job at Marion County this spring, succeeding Mac McCurry. Ross's wife, Sandy, was a three-sport letter winner at Marion, graduating in 1990.
Since its last state championship in 1995, Marion County has had seven head coaches: Landon Pickett, Tim Taylor, Dale Pruitt, Jason Evans, Troy Boeck, Mac McCurry and Ross. Marion is coming off a 10-3 season, the team's first double-digit win total since Boeck, now a Signal Mountain assistant, guided the Warriors to an 11-3 campaign in 2008.
Ross has stressed leadership since he arrived in Jasper last spring, and he has a clear definition. "You don't lead by running your mouth," he said. "Are you the first out to practice? Do you line up correctly? Are you teaching other guys how to do things right? That's leadership."