TUNNEL HILL, Ga. — Josh Robinson and his Northwest Whitfield staff took an interesting path to developing a football team that has, in the veteran coach's words, shown rare chemistry on the field.
Out of necessity, the Bruins were literally split in two during training camp. The COVID-19 pandemic forced athletic teams to be creative in efforts to keep players safe while also preparing for competition.
After studying several options, Robinson and his coaches decided to create two completely separate teams. The twist was they weren't split according to offense and defense or even where players stood on the depth chart.
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"We basically had a fantasy draft, split the team into two groups, and we had very little interaction with the other group," Robinson said. "One 'team' ended up with about six or seven starters on it on offense, the other the same on defense. It's definitely changed the way we practice.
"I don't really like it because, to me, it just isn't football, but it has protected us. We've had a couple of scares in school, but we've been able to keep them all safe. The interesting thing is the buy-in has been great by the players and they are really working together as a cohesive team, which is not always the case early in a season."
At 4-0, no one can argue with the results. Robinson admits the plan couldn't work if he didn't have a strong group of leaders who have held the team together. Senior two-way starter Matt Redmond said one common goal has brought the Bruins closer.
"Our senior group has talked about winning that region championship a lot since we got so close last year," he said. "We can really taste it."
Northwest started 5-1 last season, including a win over eventual region champion Ridgeland, but two late league losses ended the title dreams. Facing the possibility of not getting a chance to play for this year's championship due to the pandemic — something GHSA spring sports teams dealt with — Redmond and crew decided if they were allowed to play, nothing would be left on the practice field or in the weight room.
"We developed a mentality where nothing was going to hold us back," said Redmond, who was on the field for 147 of 154 plays, including special teams, against North Murray two weeks ago. "The practices being split up is a little weird, but we're used to it now, and that's where that mentality comes into play. You can tell we all want it."
It helps to have an offense that can break a defense's spirit by producing long, time-consuming drives or hit the home run. Offensive coordinator Chad Fisher's offense passes to set up the run, and with talented sophomore quarterback Owen Brooker and receivers Redmond and Ray Morrison, defenses have little choice but to focus on the air attack.
Brooker, who started as a freshman, has 912 yards on a 64% completion rate with 10 touchdowns. Redmond, who has 21 receptions for 289 yards and four scores, does most of his damage on short catches and runs. Morrison is the deep threat who has averaged 26 yards per catch (13 for 343 yards). One of his touchdowns went for 99 yards against North Murray, while Redmond has a long play of 82 yards.
"We've definitely grown in the passing game," Robinson said. "Owen is a very talented young man, and he's a year older and he's able to read defenses more. He's done a good job of going through his progressions to find the open guy, and throwing the ball as much as we do, that's a big factor. We're starting to get a hodgepodge of different things from teams in trying to contain our passing game.
"We knew what we had in Matthew, who has been starting for four years, and now Ray has shown what he can do. It's been a lot of fun to watch."
Robinson is aware the competition will soon get tougher as play begins in a new-look Region 7-AAAA. He also knows the program has won just one region championship in its history despite getting off to seven starts of 5-0 or better. He said the key this year is to stay healthy and even-keeled.
"You've got to continue to have that passion and drive, but we also can't make one game mean more than any other," he said. "There are teams we've played in the past that we want to beat too much. We try to be so perfect, so we make silly mistakes. We've also, the last four or five years, been decimated by injuries.
"If we can stay healthy and consistent, I feel great about what this team can accomplish."