Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

SPORTS >> New Falcons head man says, ‘No looking back’

Leader sports editor

The message first-year head coach Rick Russell is preaching over at North Pulaski this summer is “No looking back.”

Given that the Falcons have managed only five wins over the past six seasons — including just one last year — that mantra seems more than appropriate.

Russell, Jacksonville High School’s long-time defensive coordinator, took over from Tony Bohannon in the spring. Bohannon remains the school’s athletic director, its ninth grade coach and an assistant on the varsity.

Russell’s first order of business when he was introduced last May was to get his team in better shape and, so far, he’s enormously pleased with his team’s response.

“We worked out every Monday and Thursday over the summer and the kids really bought into what we wanted them to do,” Russell said. “We don’t want to bring up the past, but you wouldn’t believe these kids won only one game last year when you look at their attitudes.”

It’s not just the dedication to summer workouts that has Russell feeling good about things. Forty-eight players showed up for the first week of two-a-days and he expects six or seven more before the regular season begins. And the fact that 24 players are out for ninth grade is reason for hope that the program is already on the upswing.

If North Pulaski can find replacements for the loss of most of its offensive line to graduation, the skill positions look to be solid.

“Our strength is definitely our running backs and wide receivers,” Russell insisted. “We’re very quick and athletic.”

Experience will especially be a strength at running back, where incoming juniors Billy Barron and Darius Cage return. Barron is a hoss at 260 pounds. Both saw plenty of action as sophomores. Another incoming junior, Bryan Colson, is questionable because he may play basketball this fall.

But Russell says that, as nice as it is to have Barron and Cage back, the backfield is not limited to those two. The Falcons, he said, are three deep at each of the three running back positions.

“The biggest problem is getting all of them playing time,” said Russell, acknowledging that wasn’t a bad problem to have.

Though the Falcons will run a multiple offense, their first option will be a one-back set with a wing and a slot. They’ll use power formations, some Veer, and a lot of misdirection. Russell said the offense even has a Shotgun package it can turn to.

It’s a complicated offense, involving perfect timing and precise footwork, and it all will be in the hands of a sophomore quarterback in Shyheim Barron, on whom Russell heaps plenty of early praise.

“He has made so much progress since I first got here in May,” Russell said of Shyheim Barron, who quarterbacked the ninth grade last fall. “He’s very intelligent and he’s picked up the offense extremely well. We need to get him to take more control in the huddle.

“But we’re very excited about where he’s at.”

With a young quarterback, of course, comes an even greater need for solid offensive line play. The Falcons lost a lot of size up front, including a pair of 350-pounders in Carlos Donley and Cliff Copeland. Russell admits that was the one big concern coming into the season. But he feels a lot better about things on the line after a week of practice.

“We really only have one returning starter and that was our question mark,” he said. “But we think we’re figuring some things out and making some great strides. Our offensive coaches came up to me (last Thursday) and told me they weren’t worried about the offensive line anymore.

“The problem there is depth. We’ll have several going both ways.”

The defense returns quite a few who either started or got plenty of action last year. The scheme has shifted to a 3-5-3, from which the Falcons can shift into a 5-2 or a goal-line defense with ease. A.J. Stephens, Vinnie Osmun, C.J. Bernard, Calvin Carter, Arlando Hicks, Cage, Barron and Cameron Stoneking will anchor the experienced defense.

But beyond the Xs and Os, Russell remains most happy about attitude.

“The kids have been great,” he said. “(The past) is over. I haven’t seen any negative behavior from any of our kids. I asked them in May to get better every day and they’ve responded.

“We’re not looking back.”