Last year’s suspension of play for COVID-19 left high school football teams scrambling to start “spring practice” in June in preparation for the fall season.
This year, football practice is a cross between the pre-COVID days and 2020 as schools were allowed the option of cutting a week out of spring practice and starting fall workouts a week early (in the last week of July).
Too, those schools that went through a regular spring workout and a spring football game, such as Catholic, will spend much of their summer going through seven-on-seven workouts. Other teams may switch to the increasingly popular OTAs (official training activities), which allows an entire team to practice against another team in a limited capacity without pads.
All five Capital City Conference schools, however, went through some type of spring workouts before switching to off-season workouts over the summer.
The Eagles started spring practice with Michael Summers serving as the interim coach before administrators removed the interim tag but while many fans are worried about replacing Capital City Conference Player of the Year Jalen Clark, Summers said that isn’t the biggest issue facing his team.
“I don’t think quarterback is our biggest question mark,” Summers said. “I think up front is our biggest question mark. We graduated a lot up front, really on both sides of the ball. Skill position wise, we’re pretty good.
“He had a lot of guys he distributed the ball to at the receiver position that are coming back. Pretty much all of those guys are coming back.”
Clark’s replacement will be Hayes Hunt, who started the Ashford game last year and played the rest of the season at receiver. Hunt brings a different set of skills to the position, but was playing baseball this spring so Summers spent the first week of spring practice concentrating on junior varsity players who could help the Eagles this fall.
“This (first) week, we’ve focused on the younger guys,” Summers said. “We’re going to put in base stuff. We were pretty young in the secondary and skill positions, started a lot of freshmen and sophomores. Both running backs are coming back and all of our receivers are coming back.”
John Dockins will call the offense for the Eagles, while Greg Howard will serve as the defensive coordinator after the promotion of Summers. With a coaching search still under way during spring practice, the Eagles were hesitant to work on any specific alignments for offense or defense without knowing whether a new coach would change it all upon his arrival.
“We’re focusing a lot more on fundamentals,” Summers said. “We’re putting in base alignment stuff. The biggest thing we’re trying to figure out is who’s going to play up front, really on both sides of the ball.”
When Kirk Johnson was promoted from defensive coordinator to head football coach in December, it changed the look of the Knights’ coaching staff. It also changed the priorities of what Johnson was looking for when Catholic went through spring practice in early May.
“No. 1 was trying to be a head coach,” Johnson said. “I haven’t done it. I’m relying heavily on our staff. There were a lot of growing pains. I’m a hard grader, so I’d probably give myself an ‘F’ because I feel like there’s so much work to be done.
“We kind of have an idea where we are, but we are so far away from where we need to be. At this time last year, it was COVID and we were all sitting at home wondering if we were going to play football so this is the best-case scenario, where we have a game we can critique.”
That game, a mid-May shutout at Tallassee, gave Johnson some points to critique with himself and his coaching staff, but more importantly it let him watch the development of his quarterback. Caleb McCreary was a starry-eyed freshman when he was thrown into the fire in 2020, but now Johnson needed him to be a leader in 2021. He liked what he saw from his sophomore in the spring game.
“I feel like we accomplished a lot,” Johnson said, “but some of it is figuring out the team chemistry. Caleb is a big part of what we do and he has to be a vocal leader, a body language leader, a lot of things that he hasn’t been. It’s good to see him in the spring (game) instead of his first game against Pike Road at Cramton Bowl.”
Johnson also praised the attitude and work ethic of running back Jeremiah Cobb.
“I’m extremely proud of him,” he said. “When we got through with the football season, he asked me what he could do. He wanted to be a college football player. Jeremiah Cobb played at 165 last year, he’s 185 this year. He already ran hard, but running hard at 165 and running hard at 185 is completely different. His attitude and leadership is great.”
Last year at this time, head coach Robert Johnson was still trying to learn the names of his players. A year later, he feels good about the direction the Eagles are taking in his second year as the head coach.
“We know the offense, the kids know most of the defense,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to install some new packages offensively and defensively, just different things to tweak to get different players the ball, but last year if we had to play a game in June, we wouldn’t have had a prayer. This year, if we had to play a game in June, I think we could take about three days and actually play a game.”
Last year, the Eagles had to find nine defensive starters. Many of those players are back, along with running backs Jamal and Jashawn Cooper.
“We just did a lot of individual work (this spring),” Johnson said. “Obviously, we did some team, but we only hit one day. The last thing you wanted was an injury before the summer.
“I thought spring went great. The kids looked good. Our size is going to be good again, I think we’re faster. But you can’t begin to replace a (Thomas) Kirkham, a (Jackson) Kelly and a (Britton) Kohn. Then the other two kids, Carter Wallis and James Snead, those are some superior kids, too.”
Kirkham, Kelly and Snead will have to be replaced on the offensive line and Wallis was a skill player who contributed in a variety of ways, but the biggest issue for the Eagles is replacing quarterback Britton Kohn.
“Our entire starting backfield returns except for the quarterback and we really only lost two linemen,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got some really good candidates for the two offensive line spots. At quarterback, we’ve just got to battle it out. Judson Lindsey is in the lead right now. He had a good spring. Thomas Woodward is a junior who did some good things, then we have some younger kids. What we’re asking of our quarterback is just a little different than what a lot of other people are asking out of them. Britton was just able to do it all and we don’t have to have that to be able to move the football.”
Kohn also punted but the other part of the kicking game includes returning placekicker Alex Kohn, one of the top kickers in the state.
St. James coach Jimmy Perry downplayed his team’s workouts -- the Trojans had no intrasquad scrimmage or spring game to cap the session -- but said his squad met all the goals he set for them in strength and conditioning workouts and spring drills.
“I thought we had a great spring,” he said. “You know, we didn’t have one last year to compare it to. We had a set of goals going into the spring and we did exactly what we wanted to do and we had great participation out of our kids. We found some kids that could help us. The main thing is we had a great offseason. We got bigger and stronger. The best thing with my guys is we got older.”
The Trojans are thin on experienced talent at some positions (like any program) but return plenty of players from last season, losing center Cole Bender, tackle Taylor Penney and defensive lineman Bradley Woodham off of the line, but returning most of the other positions that were stocked with underclassmen last fall.
“They got thrown into the fire in the fall so (going through their first spring practice as varsity players) wasn’t that big a deal,” Perry said. “Practice is practice. I thought we had a really good spring.
“We wanted to do some things offensively that we haven’t been doing. And we had to find a couple of new offensive linemen.”
Quarterback KJ Jackson returns for his sophomore season and junior tailback Costner Harrison got plenty of looks on both sides of the ball, playing some outside linebacker as well.
“Dalton Washington had a good spring,” Perry said of his linebackers. “And we moved Clayton Craft from outside linebacker to inside linebacker and he responded very well to that move.
“We got a lot of folks a lot of looks. I was just tickled to be out there, to tell you the truth.”
Trinity coach Granger Shook said the Wildcats participated in more rushing activities in a shortened spring because the passing drills will be accomplished during seven-on-seven workouts.
“We were very limited,” he said. “I didn’t schedule a spring game because I wanted to be able to start early (in the fall). We were limited because I didn’t know how early I’d get baseball (players) and how early I’d get soccer (players) and those guys just make up so much of our team.
“I thought with what we wanted to do, I thought we got better. I’m very, very proud of our team. We will start farther ahead this June than we were last year.”
Traditionally under former coach Randy Ragsdale, the Wildcats didn’t spend a lot of time working on football in the spring because Dann Cleveland’s soccer teams and Ken Whittle’s baseball teams were generally making deep postseason runs and many of those players also played football.
“Being an alumni from here, spring has always been modified because Coach Whittle and his staff have been so successful and coach Cleveland and his soccer teams have been so successful so I knew any type of team activities would be better than nothing,” Shook said. “I was very pleased at the excitement and energy on the field and in the weight room. I challenged them early because everybody’s telling them how good last year was and how they exceeded expectations. I’m just trying to make sure they know that was last year and this is a new team.”
Replacing John David Bonner at quarterback will be a priority, although senior Coleman Stanley played the position in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Stanley is competing this summer for the starting job with sophomore Walker McClinton and freshmen Fleming Hall and Thompson McNees.
“Our quarterback candidates, all of them play baseball, so we only got them for a few days,” Shook said. “This spring, we didn’t do a lot of our offense through the air just because I think that’s what summer is for.
“I thought all four of those guys progressed well, but this summer will be a huge telltale for us.”