TIFTON — Football season moved just a bit closer Saturday morning. Tift Regional Health System’s annual Kick-Off to Men’s Health took place at the Tiftarea YMCA, which brought together seven area high school football coaches.
Chris Beckham emceed the event. This year’s panel of coaches were Tucker Pruitt (Fitzgerald), Jamie Rodgers (Cook), Erik Soliday (Tiftarea Academy), Frankie Carroll (Worth County), Buddy Nobles (Irwin County), Tommy Flowers (Tift County) and Nick Hayes (Turner County).
Flowers spoke for head coach Ashley Anders, who was attending a football camp with four of his players in New York. This was the first appearance for Carroll, Hayes and Rodgers at the event. The latter two are first-year head coaches at their schools.
Pruitt was the first to speak.
He said this was one of the most exciting times of the year and that football season is “pretty much here.” Pruitt thanked his administration and the community for being crazy about football. He listed his assistant coaches, with one of the new arrivals being a name very familiar to the area: John Gamble. Gamble, who comes over from Upson-Lee, has had head coaching stints at both Turner County and Irwin County. Gamble will be Fitzgerald’s defensive coordinator.
Fitzgerald advanced to the state semifinals in Class AA in 2018. The Purple Hurricane has a much younger lineup this year, starting with quarterback candidates Rashad Davis and Mac Turner. Quantavious Pugh and Mario Clark return to the backfield. Receiving candidates include Demarion Dixon and Chance Gamble.
“We want to get better each and every day,” said Pruitt.
Fitzgerald will play one scrimmage prior to the season’s start, hosting Coffee Aug. 9.
Rodgers was hired by Cook in January to replace Bobby Jones, who went 21-24 over four seasons with the Hornets. Rodgers moved to Adel from Baker County, Fla. He was very familiar with most of the coaches on stage with him Saturday. Rodgers likes Cook and said, “The mecca of high school football is South Georgia.”
Twenty-eight Hornets attended all summer workouts. Rodgers said every athlete will play on both sides of the field in 2019. He touted sophomore running back Jamarion Walker, linebackers Keyshawn Lucy and Kenny Mathis and quarterback Tre Williams.
“Our kids are working very hard,” he said. Cook’s scrimmage is Aug. 16 at Lanier County.
In introducing Soliday, Beckham described Tiftarea’s 2018 team as “So good they scared off Notre Dame.” The Duluth-based Irish Wolfhounds cancelled last year’s homecoming game in Chula, citing a lack of healthy bodies. Notre Dame is not playing a crossover schedule and won’t see Tiftarea this year.
The Panthers went 11-1 with a GISA Region 3-AAA championship in 2018. Though admitting the squad “lost a lot of really good football players and really great kids,” Soliday is ready for a new year. “We don’t focus on what we don’t have,” he said, “we focus on what we do.”
Players to watch this season for the Panthers include quarterback Logan Crosson, running back Adam McKinney, linebacker Jaden Jones, receiver Jayk Sailer and solid offensive and defensive lines consisting of Banks Johnson, Ty Haskins, Trenton Fender, Jackson Hoover and Ben Matt.
Soliday talked of the summer workouts his squad attended. They traveled to the University of Georgia and played at high schools in Schley County, Irwin County and Tift County. The latter impressed him for its scale … in players.
Tift County’s offensive line is so big, he said, “They had three of them that weighed more than our whole team.” Another one-liner from Soliday about the same linemen, “WALB will pick them up on doppler radar.”
Carroll is in his second season as head coach at Worth County, though he has a wealth of experience in the game. He said the Rams “had a good spring.” He returns four starters on offense and four on defense.
Coming off a 1-9 campaign, Carroll pointed to quarterback Jordan Curry as probably his “top leader.” He also had high praise for linemen Makyjia Jordan, Milton Gowdy and Ladarius Curry. David Wilcher and Joseph Jones are linebackers. Tayshaun Shipp rates as a wide receiver.
Carroll said Worth will primarily be a running team this season. He joked that Rams fans are “ready to see the ball in the air, but that’s not going to happen.”
Worth’s one scrimmage will be against Irwin County.
Nobles talked about the joy of football. This is his 31st season coaching and he said there “ain’t nothing like Friday nights in South Georgia.” He credits his faith and 34-year marriage for his success on the gridiron.
Irwin made the state finals again in 2018 — their fourth in five seasons — but dropped the championship game to Clinch County, 27-20. The Indians will be returning quarterback Zach Smith and running back D.J. Lundy to the lineup, plus a player who figures in everywhere on the field, Jamorri Colson.
The team’s motto for this season is “Make three more plays,” according to Nobles, referring to last year’s finale. Nobles praised Irwin’s booster club and talked about a few of the team’s opponents. One is Mount Paran Christian, a private school they will play in Kennesaw. Nobles said there will be a culture shock as the Eagles’ campus “ain’t Ocilla.”
Irwin will scrimmage Worth County and Brooks County.
Flowers stepped in for Anders Saturday and rattled off many names of impact players for 2019, as well as the names of the assistant coaches working with them. The defensive line, in particular, has received much attention for its loaded lineup of Byronn Williams, Jalon Miller, Charles King and Tyre West. Quarterbacks battling for the post are Jacob Beach, Joe Almond and Weston Clamp, he said.
Even more help is on the way, said Flowers. Tift County’s ninth and 10th grade players are among the best he’s been around.
As acclaimed as the Blue Devils’ lineup seems, Flowers feels “like we’re the dark horse” in Region 1-AAAAAAA.
Tift will scrimmage at Lee County Aug. 15.
Turner County’s Hayes, the youngest coach speaking Saturday, will soon have a new addition to the lineup. His wife is due to give birth to their first child this week.
A Lyons native, he said he is “very thankful to be back in South Georgia.” Hayes joined Turner earlier this year. This is his first head coaching job. Previous assistant spots were at Lowndes, Ware County, Toombs County and Putnam County. His first staff with the Rebels includes a name very familiar to Tift County fans — Alfred Bell. Bell, who starred in basketball for the Blue Devils, will coach wide receivers.
Turner expects to be very experienced this season. Hayes said the squad had 12 seniors and 10 returnees on defense. Among the big names on offense are quarterback candidates Karmello Lawson and David Morris, the latter being 230 pounds. He also has Demarcus Barnes, who quarterbacked some a year ago, moving over to running back.
Turner goes to Berrien for a scrimmage Aug. 8 and will host Hawkinsville in another warm-up Aug. 16
“I’m excited to see what the fruits of this summer bear,” said Hayes.