Leader Blues

Friday, August 15, 2008

SPORTS>>Pieces of puzzle coming together

Leader sports editor

It’s way too early to say if the Jacksonville Red Devils have developed the kind of attitude head coach Jim Whatley has been looking for ever since the 2007 season ended, but so far, so good, he says.

After a 3-7 season that left Whatley questioning his team’s focus, the emphasis last spring and this summer was on re-learning the importance of hard work and preparation.

“I think we’re on the right track, but that change of attitude won’t be tested until they meet adversity,” said Whatley, who begins his fourth season at the Red Devil helm. “We’ll find out if we’ve really changed or it’s just lip service.

“But as far as work habits and the way the kids are positive and pushing each other and demanding each other go full speed, they’re taking a very business-like and positive approach.”

Two weeks into summer practice, the Red Devils are sitting on a roster of around 63 players who are coming off what Whatley characterizes as a solid offseason and summer workout program.

Rather than rely on 7-on-7 tournaments through the summer, the Red Devils elected instead to host a couple of team camps, and Whatley thinks that will prove more beneficial in the long run.

Three quarterbacks entered last spring vying for the starting job. Thanks to a shoulder injury suffered during baseball season by sophomore Noah Sanders, that competition has been narrowed to two as of now. Senior Terrell Brown and sophomore Logan Perry, fully recovered from an ankle injury suffered during high school baseball, are “neck and neck,” Whatley said.

“They both bring to the table some things we can use,” Whatley said. “We think we’ll use both of them quite a bit this year. If we played tomorrow, they’d both see a lot of action, and I think that’s a good thing. As far as Noah, that injury has set him back quite a bit.”

The other big question — piecing together a nearly brand-new offensive line — has yet to be answered, though Whatley insisted things were starting to become clearer.

He is especially high on 6-4, 310- pound senior Michaiah Davis, who has missed most of the past three seasons because of chronic hip and knee injuries. He’s healthy this year and Whatley thinks he could be special.

“He’s got the size and the speed and the desire,” Whatley said. “If there’s any justice, with the time and effort he’s put in in the offseason, he should have a phenomenal season. I think he’s capable of being a premiere offensive lineman.”
Now, it’s just a matter of plugging in the other pieces of the puzzle.

But whatever happens, Whatley is optimistic that he may be able to play his linemen one way, rather than have them playing both offense and defense.

“Whatever we do, we’re going to be young when we do it,” he said. “But the kids will work that out and we’ll put that puzzle together.”
Taking a young team — and the Red Devils are loaded with sophomores — into the teeth of a rugged 6A-East Conference schedule is no picnic, but Whatley is encouraged by a surprising toughness among his youthful linemen.

“There are times we may be all sophomores across the defensive line,” he said. “But there’s that old saying, ‘If you bite as a pup, there’s a good chance you’ll bite as a big dog.’ What’s encouraging is that these pups are biting right now.

“The discouraging thing is we play in a very tough league and it’s tough to compete as a sophomore. But I’ve been impressed with how physical our young ones have been.”

On the injury front, fullback Caleb Mitchell re-injured a finger he had originally hurt during baseball season and will be out three to four weeks. Running back Jeffrey Tillman suffered heat exhaustion in the first week of practice but is coming around and should be good to go when Jacksonville hosts Cabot on Sept. 2.