Taylor Leathers would like it if his players had the same mental approach to practice every day, but he acknowledged in the spring and summer “the season seems forever away for a teenager.”
Leathers is pleased Colbert Heights’ fieldhouse – heavily damaged last fall in a storm – has been renovated, but the Wildcats will have a different level of concentration as fall camp starts Monday because fall camp means the season looms.
“Two weeks and then it’s game week. Red Bay’s coming,” Leathers said. “ … It’s getting real.”
As fall practices begin Monday statewide, coaches and players know it’s time for decisions to be made and questions to be answered. If April is for exploring possibility, August is for finding clarity.
Wilson coach Matt Poarch does not want the Warriors to miss out on the playoffs for a second year in a row, but his team starts the season with five difficult games – three of which are region games.
The Warriors can’t wait until late in the season to play well, and Poarch is encouraged how eager his players are to earn more playing time.
“This week’s about teaching a lot of technique. We’re going to try and fine tune and see who can play with technique,” he said. “Who’s paid attention to details over the summer is who is going to shine this week.”
Wilson went 3-6 last year, but this should be a smoother fall camp than last year’s, now that Poarch has had a full year in charge and has had more time to work with his staff and create plans.
“Last year at this time it just felt like a mad rush to put together an offense that we could all understand and be on the same page and go out and execute,” he said.
Lexington’s 1-9 mark last fall was its worst in 11 years, and the Bears finished the season on an eight-game losing streak.
Coach Jason Lard, who enters his tenth year leading Lexington, senses that record would have been a bit better if not for untimely mistakes. A missed tackle can turn a 5-yard run into 60. A third down penalty can keep an opponent’s drive going. A turnover can dramatically change a game.
Things like that happened too often for Lexington in 2018.
“We try to eliminate bad football,” Lard said of his emphasis to open fall camp. “We’ve talked all spring and all summer about bad football.”
Lard said last year’s team lacked mental toughness, and while the current players seem to be making progress they have work to do there.
“I think anytime you have a season like we had last year you start to doubt yourself a little bit,” he said. “But that’s part of the progression and maturity of becoming a man.”
The AHSAA has rules for fall practice. Teams are allowed to add more equipment as the week goes on, but even then there are limitations to how long they are to spend doing certain types of contact.
Leathers said he carries a copy of the practice rules out to the field so he can check the time limits and make sure he’s following them.
Cherokee coach Lymos McDonald said the start of fall camp can vary based on how experienced the team is and how much time needs to be spent on fundamental skills.
He said this week he’ll concentrate on the basics, like making sure linemen know where to step to block and defensive backs know how to move to best cover a receiver.
Friday will give McDonald, in his fifth year coaching Cherokee, a chance to test how his players handle physical contact.
“It always depends on the nature of the team,” McDonald said. “If you’ve got a young team that’s not aggressive, you’ve got to make them aggressive.”
Leathers wants to spend much of this week on special teams, finding out who will help on kickoffs, punts and returns.
“I’ve found a punter during a water break before,” Leathers said with a laugh.
But it’s also a good chance for the team to talk about something other than game strategy. The Wildcats will set up a leadership council featuring representatives from each grade, and they’ll gather in a classroom setting to talk about their goals.
He knows the Wildcats want to return to the playoffs for a third straight year. Perhaps the players will set a goal of a top two finish in the region standings to get a home first round playoff game. Maybe they’ll set a goal bigger than that. But he wants them to own that goal.
“The next thing we talk about,” Leathers said, “is ‘OK, what is it going to take to do that?’”