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Monday, September 25, 2023

High school football: Media day launches 2023 season as practices loom

The unofficial start of the high school football season arrived on Wednesday with the Baker’s Sports media day launching area teams into the new season. With practices set to start next week, media day has often served as the point where players and coaches begin their quest for the coming season.

Plenty of new coaches

The coaching turnstile spun more than it has in quite some time during the offseason. Nearly two dozen schools have different head coaches than they ended last season with. That includes several prominent programs (Bartram Trail, Fleming Island, Oakleaf) that have new men in charge.

Mandarin coach Toby Bullock was one of numerous coaches who said that he wasn’t surprised at all by the heavy turnover.

“We make 10 cents an hour. No. No it’s not [surprising],” Bullock said. “People want to feel important. People want to feel appreciated. One way you show that is by giving them your time, giving them enthusiasm and by paying them what they’re worth. By no means is this me preaching about the pay, but that is a simple fact. Coaches in high don’t make enough money for the time that they put in.”

In Duval County, the football coaching supplement is $4,699 for the regular season and the spring. That total doesn’t cover the summer months when coaches aren’t paid.

New but familiar faces

Scattered among the new head coaches are names area fans will recognize.

Jamaal Fudge starred at Ed White High before turning in a stellar career at Clemson and later with the Jaguars. He’s the new head coach at NFEI. Step Durham was a Times-Union Super 11 selection at Atlantic Coast before playing in college at Georgia Tech. Kevin Johnson was a multisport star at Englewood in baseball, basketball and football before going to play in college at Missouri. And Daniel Thomas parlayed an excellent playing career at Hilliard into an eventual second-round draft selection by the Dolphins.

Durham, Johnson and Thomas are all back at their alma maters in their first seasons as head coaches.

“I tell the kids stories all the time. I used to walk these same halls. I played on this same field, don’t tell me you can’t accomplish [success] because I did it here at Englewood,” Johnson said. “Where most people think in our city Englewood is a second-class program, whereas when I played for Englewood we were in the playoffs three out of the four years. And so I’m just really trying to bring the mindset back to the kids that, ‘Hey, we’re winners too. We’re winners, too.’ They just need to know and believe that.”

Thomas has been back in the Hilliard community for the last few years, so he hasn’t been foreign to the Red Flashes’ success under former coaches John Pate and Waylon Cox.

“I’ve been working with those kids for the last two years so I was able to inherit them as a head coach,” Thomas said. “So, it’s been smooth to say the least. They’re all ready to roll. So, it’s been good.”

Fudge played in 33 games over four seasons with the Jaguars (2006-09) and has been back in Jacksonville in various roles like teaching and personal training. When the position at NFEI opened this summer, Fudge applied and landed his first head coaching job.

“It’s very special. Something you’ve always wanted to do, try to achieve,” Fudge said. “Now that it’s actually here, now that you’re in it, it’s a little different that you’re in it. But I like the process. I like what we’re doing. We got a lot of support from the administration, that’s key.”

UC-Trinity a rivalry again

One of the biggest storylines of the new playoff system last year was the Trinity Christian and University Christian rivalry getting a facelift. Those teams were slotted in the same district, which meant that the typically larger-sized Conquerors would have to get through the normally smaller Christians to win another title.

Trinity edged UC 20-13 in the regular season. In the regional final, UC won a back-and-forth, 36-27 classic to hand Trinity its only loss of the season. The Christians hadn’t beaten Trinity in 30 years. The teams meet on Oct. 13 this year.

“They had the upper hand for a long time,” said UC coach David Penland III. “Now you can consider it a rivalry. It ought to be a battle this year. I’m sure we’re circled on the schedule.”

Trinity quarterback Colin Hurley, an LSU commit, said he wasn’t ready yet to call that series a rivalry just yet.

“I felt like we were just off our game and they got the best of us. They had some good talent on that team and they really stepped up and took ahold of that. I don’t really feel like it’s a rivalry, I feel like they just got the upper hand [that night],” Hurley said.

Veterans key for Fletcher

Ciatrick Fason begins his third season at his alma mater where he rewrote rushing records en route to becoming the top-rated running back in the country. Fason held the area mark for career rushing (7,479 yards) before Yulee’s Derrick Henry surpassed that in 2011. Fason has guided the Senators to back-to-back district titles but thinks this season could be the one where Fletcher ups the ante.

“Veterans, 38 seniors. Quarterback is already established. Everything’s easy for him. That’s been the key,” Fason said. “Majority of the guys that’s playing now that are seniors have been three-year starters. That’s been the key.”

That quarterback is Marcelis Tate, one of the three-year starters Fason has major hopes for. Tate has accounted for 30 touchdowns and two district championships in his two seasons under Fason.

“Undefeated in city and deep run in the playoffs,” said Tate, a USF commitment. “That’s what we’re expecting.

Buzz about Yellow Jackets

Two of St. Augustine High’s best seasons came in 2005 (state title) and 2007 (state runner-up) under longtime coach Joey Wiles. Those teams had remarkable senior classes. The 2005 team was paced by players like Quintin Hancock, Brandon James, Jacques Rickerson and Matt Garris, all major college football signees. The 2007 team was headlined by Rashard Hall, Kawuan Jakes, Carlton Lewis and Caleb Sturgis, another haul of big time college prospects. All of those players saw playing time early in their careers and were locked into starting roles by their sophomore seasons. Why does that matter?

There are major parallels to the current crop of Yellow Jackets, led by juniors, quarterback Locklan Hewlett and receivers Trenton Jones and Carl Jenkins Jr., and the St. Augustine teams of yesteryear. Those prior Yellow Jackets teams relied heavily on underclassmen during slight rebuilds by St. Augustine standards (2003 and 2006). By the time those underclassmen had logged some experience, they were lethal. The 2005 team went 15-0 and won a championship. The 2007 team should have won a championship, but lost 17-10 to Naples.

Head coach Brian Braddock, who was an assistant and then a coordinator for St. Augustine during that time, said he sees the parallels. The 2003 team, which featured sophomores then in James, Hancock, Rickerson and Garris, won seven games that season and lost in the playoff opener. Last year’s St. Augustine team won seven games and lost in the first round. How’d things play out for the Yellow Jackets?

In 2004, they reached the state semifinals. Could the junior-heavy team this year, led by Wake Forest commit Hewlett, make a similar jump?

“Our class of 2025 is the best I’ve ever been around,” Braddock said. “Their talent extends beyond the field. That’s why it’s so enjoyable to coach them. I know we’ve got a lot of talented individuals. We’re going to find out real soon how good of a team we have.”

Tornadoes swirling for more

One of the best stories last year was the dominance of Bradford. The Tornadoes had a new coach (but a familiar name) in Jamie Rodgers, who returned to the area from Cook High School in Georgia.

Rodgers has a resume of building rural-area teams into state contenders and doing it quickly. He took Suwannee to a state semifinal game and his alma mater Baker County to a title game, both inside of three seasons. At Bradford, the success was instant.

The Tornadoes had four shutouts to open the season and had one of the most vaunted defenses in the state. That’s what is expected in his second season, especially with a core returning (Torin Brazell, Chason Clark, Chalil Cummings, to name three).

“I knew that we had good football players…Just didn’t know how it was going to come together so fast. Defensively we had a special season, 14 games, nine shutouts. That’s not normal. The buy-in I had from Day 1 in January, that’s what happened. The kids got in the weight room. They bought in,” Rodgers said. “They lifted as hard as they could all the way from January through the summer, we had a great summer last year and that was kind of the product of it.”

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