By Devin Golden
It’s time to get physical.
Georgia High School Association rules allow football teams to begin practicing in full pads today, and most of the seven programs in Murray and Whitfield counties will take advantage of that opportunity for full contact on the field.
While most teams around the state have been going through football drills of some type since spring practice, the workouts took on a more serious tone with the start of the official preseason and the GHSA’s conditioning period on July 25. For a five-day stretch, teams have been permitted to practice in shorts, T-shirts and helmets to allow players to acclimate to the heat and coaching staffs to focus on conditioning.
But once the pads go on, practices will look a lot more like what you’ll see on Friday nights once the season kicks off later this month. With pads on, teams are also permitted to practice longer during a single session — from a maximum of two hours to three hours — and may take the field twice a day for a maximum of five hours.
“I have had enough of these short practices,” Southeast Whitfield coach Sean Gray said. “It has been good getting out there and getting moving, but we are ready to start hitting. The kids and the coaches are fired up for this morning.”
Both Gray and Dalton coach Matt Land mentioned the word “physical” when talking about things they look for in the first few practices with pads.
“Everything that we have done to this point — seven-on-seven, combines, camps — has been merely academic,” Land said. “We need to see how physical we can be as a team. All the other stuff has been talk. Now we finally get that time where we see that complete football player.
“Fifty percent of this game is athleticism, and 50 percent is toughness. We only have 10 days in the spring to see how mentally tough these kids are, and half of that time is spent teaching your younger players. You don’t really see it until you can put the pads on today. This is the most important time of the year.”
Land’s Catamounts and North Murray are both at Tusculum College near Knoxville, Tenn., for mini-camp sessions that will last into the weekend. Other teams are sticking around their own facilities, but the objectives are similar no matter the location of the practices.
Gray, who is entering his second season in charge of the Raiders, is likely to soon have a better idea of what type of impact he made during his first full offseason at Southeast.
“I have certain things I want to see,” Gray said. “I want to see how physically tough we are and physically strong we are. I want to see who can come back on that second day and that third day and see if they can hit just as hard and run just as fast. There is a whole lot of difference between what we have done this summer and real football. I think this team is physically tough, and we will find out.”
Dalton — the only area team to make the state playoffs a year ago — kicks off its season a week earlier than other area teams, hosting Ringgold on Aug. 23. But the pace is picking up for everyone today, regardless of their opening date.
Some area teams will need to make big leaps after struggling a year ago, but some will look to build on what happened last season. Christian Heritage finished 5-5 in its first year competing in the GHSA.
“It was all new to us, and you have to play in those kind of games and experience them and learn from them,” Lions coach Preston Poag said. “We played some of those games last year that we should have won, but that was good experience. They have a little more confidence. We were toe to toe with all of the teams that we played.”
North Murray — which had a 1-19 record through its first two seasons of varsity football in 2010 and 2011 — also finished 5-5 last year, the first with David Gann as head coach. Much of this time last year was spent installing a new offense and a new way of running the program, and Gann’s second preseason still includes laying the foundation.
“In a sense, it is (less exciting),” Gann said. “But it takes more than a year to get your system and staff in place. We’ve hired four new coaches. We have a new defensive coordinator teaching a new system. We also lost 24 seniors who all played. It’s still a rebuilding process for us with new coaches, a new system and a lot of young kids with little Friday night experience. What we’re trying to do is get to a place where we have 20-25 seniors here each year and a good staff so we can have some continuity in place.”
Chad Brewer is in the place Gann and Gray were last season. Brewer has taken over as head coach of the Murray County Indians, a program that finished 0-10 in 2012. Being in a new job at a program that has struggled as of late — the Indians haven’t had a winning season since 2005, which was also the last time they made the state playoffs — Brewer has seen the benefit of the five heat acclimation days leading up to today’s full-pad practices.
“It’s a little bit different for us, because we have a new coaching staff and are installing a new offense and new defense,” Brewer said. “It has worked in our favor.
“If I was a veteran coach and I had been here a while, it’d drive me nuts.”
Northwest Whitfield had arguably the biggest heartbreak of all last season, and that might provide special motivation this year. The Bruins lost 40-37 in triple overtime to Gilmer in the 2013 regular-season finale with a state playoffs spot going to the winner. Instead of trying to build on positives, players are looking to use the end-of-season negative as motivation — if getting physical didn’t already bring enough of it.
“We’ve mentioned it,” Northwest coach Josh Robinson said of the final game. “Obviously, you can’t forget something like that. The last two years, we’ve missed the playoffs by a combined four points. We lost to Rome by a point and then last year lost the game in triple overtime. ... It’s definitely a motivating factor.”
Coahulla Creek didn’t begin its conditioning period until this past Friday and so will be a day behind in putting on pads. Colts coach Jared Hamlin, whose team is preparing for its second varsity season, is definitely ready to get to that phase.
“There isn’t anything better than the first day you get pads on and hear that pop and crack,” he said. “That excitement will always be there for coaches and players.”
While that initial burst of adrenaline is nice, Hamlin knows it will only last so long. Like all coaches, he is eager to see who can carry that energy into the season, when it will matter most.
“What I have seen to this point is a maturity that we haven’t seen before,” he said. “I am starting to see them grow up and the leadership is starting to take over. Right now, as far as our intensity, we are trying to get more up-tempo and that is finally starting to click. I am hoping that we will have the physicality to go with that mentality. I am excited to see what happens then.”
Sports writer Chris Whitfield contributed to this story.