After a long offseason of weightlifting, 7-on-7 drills and conditioning work, local high school football teams will finally be able to get on the practice field Monday.
The Alabama High School Athletic Association mandates fall practice across the state can't start until Monday, at which point players can go out in T-shirts and shorts. Players can wear shoulder pads and helmets Wednesday, and full pads can be worn Thursday.
The local offseason didn't have nearly the turnover as last season, as every head coach in Athens and Limestone County returns. Last season, there were new head coaches at four of the seven football-playing high schools in the county.
West Limestone coach Shelby Davis, Tanner coach Oscar Bonds, Ardmore coach P.J. Wright and Clements coach Michael Parker all believe a full offseason with the team has shown great benefits as they go into their second seasons. West Limestone and Ardmore both posted 4-6 records, while Clements finished last season 4-7 and Tanner struggled to a 1-9 mark.
“We were about to kick off (in the first game) last season, and I didn't have a clue what was about to happen,” Davis said. “Our players didn't know us (the coaching staff), and we didn't know them. Knowing who you're working with goes a long way. You've got to know the kids, who they respond to, what motivates them and what's going on in their lives. The better relationship you have with them, the more you can get out of them.”
Bonds believes the Rattlers are much stronger and more disciplined than last season, when they struggled to their worst season since 1992.
“The offseason workouts have been great,” Bonds said. “I've got the kids I need out there. I lost some kids along the way who don't fit the program I'm trying to build. But it's for a good reason. I've got the guys who want to be here. We are certainly a lot stronger and in better shape.”
Bonds said his goal is to get Tanner back to the winning ways the team enjoyed under legendary coach Laron White.
“I'm changing the culture,” Bonds said. “It's the way (the players) carry themselves, even simple things like jogging on and off the field at practice. They just weren't used to working out and being held accountable for working out.”
Another coach trying to change a culture is Clements head coach Michael Parker. While the Colts made the Class 3A playoffs for the first time since 2009 last season, Parker wants to improve on the team's 4-7 record, which included a 41-0 loss to Piedmont in the first round of the playoffs.
As fall practice begins Monday, Parker is excited about the improvements he has seen from his team.
“I think we're turning a corner here,” Parker said. “We have kids who compete now, cheer for each other, are behind each other and are good teammates. The culture is beginning to change, and with that comes pride and integrity.”
Perhaps the team with the most new starters will be Ardmore, which has to replace 21 starters from last year's team. Wright said a lack of depth has the potential to hurt the Tigers as they compete in Class 5A football.
“Depth is a huge concern for us,” Wright said. “The kids we have, we're trying to get to play with their best ability on both sides of the football. So right now, we're trying to build the numbers and get the ones we do have in the best shape they can be, because a lot of them are going to have to play on both sides of the ball.”
Elkmont coach Duane Wales said fundamentals and strength will help his team improve from a 2-8 record in 2018.
“We're still trying to build this program, and get good football knowledge accomplished,” Wales said. “The kids have worked really hard, and we've seen an increase in strength. You can tell by looking at the kids, they're getting stronger and getting their bodies in shape.”
While those teams are trying to turn around losing records, two teams are trying to build on last season's successes.
Athens is coming off a successful season, in which it finished with an 8-3 record and a trip to the Class 6A playoffs.
The Golden Eagles will have to break in a new quarterback this season, as Nebraska commitment Logan Smothers transferred to Muscle Shoals after his father, former Athens offensive coordinator Shane Smothers, took the same position for the Trojans football team.
Athens head coach Cody Gross could not be reached for comment.
East Limestone is also looking to duplicate or even improve on a season where they went 9-3 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Indians coach Jeff Pugh said last season's success can help motivate his players to strive for even more.
“It sets an attitude,” Pugh said. “They've worked hard because of the success last year. They've got a standard to try and hold up. We've got a good group of seniors like we had last year, and we're going to continue to keep the program contending for a region championship.”
For in-depth stories on each team, see The News Courier's Blitz magazine, which publishes Aug. 30.