Experience pays dividends for ACA in summer workouts

ACA coach Nate Sanford explains what he wants from his players as they take a week off from summer workouts. 

At Montgomery Academy and Trinity, new coaches are installing new schemes for their players. At St. James, a rebuilding group of new players have to learn how to play at the varsity level.

Neither is a problem at Alabama Christian Academy, where nine of 10 assistant coaches return and 17 starters return from 2019.

“It’s gone a lot smoother because now that everyone has experience, they know,” senior quarterback Jalen Clark said. “The game’s not going 1000 miles per hour. It’s refreshing.”

Head coach Nate Sanford can empathize with the installment struggles by MA coach Robert Johnson and Trinity coach Granger Shook and be thankful that the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t dealt ACA any unforeseen obstacles.

“It’s hard to put a price tag on continuity,” Sanford said. “It’s a way bigger deal than people understand, only losing one coach out of 10. The offensive schemes stay the same, the terminology stays the same, the relationships stay the same.

“So as we had Zoom meetings with them during the nine weeks we were out, it’s nothing new. I really do feel for Robert and Granger. We’ve all been there, but they’re in a doubly difficult spot because they didn’t have their players for so long. (Getting to know your players) happens on all these hours out here (at practice) together, so that’s really, really a tough spot.”

At ACA, the majority of the experienced players are returning to the same positions they held a year ago. It’s made the first three weeks of summer practice a smooth, seamless production that breeds confidence as the season draws nearer.

“We always know what we’re going to do, we know who’s going to be where,” senior lineman Will Wright said. “Thankfully, we have a lot of people coming back so we had a perfect idea of who was going to be where, so that was helpful to us. If (coronavirus and the suspension of spring practice) had happened last year or the year before, we would have had a rough time.

“We’re a lot more polished than I’ve ever seen us be.”

That’s not to say everything’s been business as usual. Moving spring training from April and May to June and July allows the players to work out together, but not with other teams at seven-on-seven camps and summer camps that are held during the summer months.

“It was really weird missing all the spring training,” Wright said. “It’s kind of like a preview to the summer. The big way this summer is going to be different, though, is we’re missing all the joint practices and we go to a lineman camp in Birmingham and we’re going to miss that and we usually have the ‘Big Man’s Brawl’ (at ACA) and we’re going to miss that. We all love doing that. It’s a little extra competition other than with your brothers on the field.”

Then, there’s the social distancing and the constant disinfecting that the coronavirus has forced upon the team. Try as you might to stay focused on business as usual, there’s no way you can expect it to be business as usual.

“It’s a lot different, having a mask (on during practice),” Clark said. “That’s tough. And you’re not supposed to be in close groups and bonding, like celebrating.”

Still, the experience paid off for the Eagles as they soared through their first three weeks of workouts ahead of a lot of teams in the area. After finishing up a Thursday morning practice, ACA will take a week off and return after the holiday with a different outlook.

“The conditioning piece is what we’re really going to hit hard in our next three-week cycle when we come back on July 6,” Sanford said. “We feel like, knowledge-wise, we’re right on track; conditioning-wise, that’s a balancing act between overworking them and getting them to understand that’s what is going to help you win more than just about anything else. That’s the focus of the next three weeks, to take it from a beginner phase to getting into almost game-ready shape.”

It will require more intense practices and longer practice sessions, but the veteran Eagles welcome the challenge.

“I feel like we’re almost where we need to be and where we want to be,” Clark said. “With the intensity, we’re almost there. Every day, competing, we’re just having fun. Once that transfers to actually doing our job and doing it the right way, we’ll have fun no matter what.”