Leader Blues

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

SPORTS >> Red Devils enjoying large spring turnout

Leader sports editor

Last season’s inexperience may be this year’s advantage at Jacksonville High.

Spring practice got under way last week, and though the Red Devils lost loads of skill players on both sides of the ball, greater numbers may help to offset that.

Sixty-eight players came out this spring, up significantly from previous years in head coach Mark Whatley’s four-year reign at Jacksonville.

“If they continue to stay eligible,” Whatley warns. “We preach (grades) and preach it and preach it. They are student athletes, not athlete students. Hopefully, if you stress that enough, they’ll be okay.

“But when you have your numbers up you definitely have an opportunity to become a better football team on the practice field and on Friday night, as long as people are committed to their roles.”

Whereas last year, the Red Devils packed lots of offensive punch and struggled on defense with as many as six sophomore starters, this year may be the opposite. Whatley figures his Red Devils paid their dues last fall by starting so many inexperienced players on defense.

“We should be better simply from an experience standpoint,” Whatley said. “But you’re losing Demetrius and Terrell out of the backfield.”

That would be Demetrius Harris, last fall’s Leader Defensive Player of the Year, and Terrell Brown, a superb athlete and skilled defensive back. Also gone is linebacker Jeffrey Tillman.

But with the six sophomores having a year of experience under their belts and with the possibility that a lot of players will have to play on only one side of the ball this year, the defense could be this team’s strength. Through the first week of practice, Whatley said he likes what he’s seen. Players are running to the football well and showing plenty of enthusiasm.

The Red Devils lost a good one in long-time defensive coordinator Rick Russell, who left to take the head coaching job at North Pulaski.

The offense, on the other hand, has plenty of question marks, with only junior quarterback Logan Perry returning with any significant contributions among skill players. The loss of Harris and Brown was a blow to the offense as well as the defense. Harris, a 6-6 wide receiver, was often unstoppable and began to draw double teams after early standout performances. That opened things up for Brown, who had an outstanding second half of the season on offense.

Then, there was dangerous running back Patrick Geans and mammoth offensive lineman Micaiah Davis, also lost to graduation.

“No doubt about it, we’ve got to find some skill players who can step in and make some plays for us,” Whatley said. “Geans went over 1,000 yards last year, Demetrius was a big-time receiver, Micaiah was a big-time tackle. That’s a lot of points we lost.”
Despite the loss of Davis, Whatley thinks the line could be better this season. Caleb Mitchell and center Jacob Hicks return up front. Whatley said Aaron Shore and Rhakeem James are showing promise on the line, as well. One thing he wants to focus on is the running game.

“The more the line picks up the Spread, we might go to more offset-I stuff under center,” Whatley said. “We’ve got to do a better job of running the football, but I think the people up front are going to allow us to do that.”

Whatley also said Perry, who was a heady-beyond-his-years sophomore, has improved his arm strength tremendously. That, he said, will allow the Red Devils to play the quick-passing game more effectively, as well as to stretch the field more. Whatley said he’s also planning on taking better advantage of Perry’s running ability.

The only experienced returning receiver is Devin Featherstone, but Whatley is counting on other skilled, if unproven, players stepping up, including Tony Privitera, Tyler Crook and basketball standout Deshone McClure, who has decided to join sophomore brother Devon McClure on the squad.

Devon is a talented player who could see some time at free safety or running back. Other possible replacements for Geans in the backfield are John Johnson, Antoine Mosby and Doug Sprouse.

The thing Whatley is most pleased with, though, is the big turnout, which he attributes to a senior class last fall loaded with character. Jacksonville has been beset over the past few years with eligibility issues. It’s one of the reasons, Whatley said, for the low number of seniors on this year’s squad.

“Some of those kids just let the books slip by and made some poor decisions and they’re just not here,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot of kids now doing things right. And that’s what we expect. That’s what the community expects.

“Guys like Terrell Brown are people you can count on. They expect the other players to be accountable and it made my job a lot easier. That was the first year I didn’t have to worry about kids being in in-school suspension, didn’t have to worry about kids fighting in the park, or about court dates. Our senior class (last year) proved you can be successful and do things the right way.

“Hopefully, our young people realize the importance of being accountable and being where you’re supposed to be.”