A clean slate
First-year coach Estes anxious to improve on winless 2004
Justin Schuver, Hartselle Enquirer
In hopes of putting its five-year streak of sub-.500 seasons behind it, Falkville is looking to a familiar face to right the ship.
First year coach Neil Estes has been an assistant with the Blue Devils for 17 years, including seven years coaching the school's junior varsity team. In fact, many of Estes' players this season were on his junior varsity teams.
"I think in the back of their minds these kids have a confidence you don't usually see in teams who went winless in their last season," Estes said. "As ninth graders, they went 5-2 and probably could have even been 6-1 on their junior high teams. Of course there's a big difference between junior high and varsity, but if you have that taste of winning in your mouth, then you know what it feels like and you know what it takes to get back to that winning attitude."
The Blue Devils hit rock bottom in 2004, finishing the season 0-10 and handing the reins of the program to Estes, who succeeds Jeff Miller as head coach. Estes believes that this year's team has the chance to improve tremendously even though it has to replace one of its most important offensive positions.
"(When you're talking about guys it will be tough to replace) you have to start at the quarterback spot," he said. "We had two guys that kind of shared those responsibilities the last three years in Todd Russell and Bobby Holladay. They've taken virtually every snap the last three years, so that's a lot of experience to replace."
One advantage for Estes is the fact that Todd's brother Kevin will more than likely start under center for Falkville this season. Kevin Russell was Estes' starting quarterback on that 5-2 junior varsity team, but has not played varsity football for the past two seasons.
"The most recent coaching that Kevin has had was with me as his coach, so he already knows a lot of the terminology and offensive system," Estes said. "He's been out of football for a while, but I still think that he can do some good things at quarterback. As a ninth grader he made a lot of plays and I think he'll go out there and compete this year as well."
Estes also looks forward to welcoming back a healthy Blake Jump to the team this season. Jump was Falkville's leading rusher in 2003, but an ACL injury in spring of 2004 kept him out of five of last season's games. Cody Simpson stepped in for the games Jump missed, but with Jump returning Simpson will move primarily to the receiver position.
The Falkville coach expects for Jump, Simpson and senior outside linebacker Cory Shadden to be the team's leaders this year.
"I'm looking for Blake to be a real leader on this team," Estes said. "He's the kind of player you want in the trenches with you, because he wants to win and will do what it takes to win.
"Cory is one that we really need to step up and provide leadership, and Cody is probably the vocal leader of the team. These are the guys who we want to lead; they're all really good kids and we'd love to have the rest of the team follow their example."
Backing up Russell at quarterback is freshman Jonathan McNatt, while Caleb Ashley is expected to spell Jump at the running back position. Shadden will see action primarily at fullback, and Simpson, Jeremy Stiles and Joseph Smith will be the team's main receivers.
Sophomore Brandon Clark will be the team's starting tight end, a position that Estes says has "a lot of potential." Aaron Allen, Brandon McNeal, Alex Holt, Jonathan Grantland, Nick Hill and Garland Smith will be in the mix for the offensive line.
At defensive line, McNeal will probably start at nose guard and Hill and Kyle Jones will see action at defensive end. The linebacker position is loaded, with Simpson, Jump, Clark, Ashley, Allen and Hartselle transfer Tim Ford all capable of contributing.
Shadden, Stiles, Russell and Joseph Smith will make up the defensive backfield, and Clark and Grantland will share the team's kicking and punting duties – Clark will punt; Grantland will do most placekicking and the two will share kickoffs.
The return game is more than capable and experienced, with Simpson and Shadden slated to return kickoffs and punts.
"Cory did a really good job on kickoff returns last year," Estes said. "The only bad thing about that is that we had too many (kickoff returns). We got really good at kickoff return. I'd personally rather my team be lousy at kickoff return, because that means you didn't have too many of them."
Falkville's schedule includes several unfamiliar teams in Region 7 play, a fact that bothers first-year coach Estes.
"I hate region play," he said. "We're playing a lot of teams that we have no real rivalry or history with, and it's a bunch of teams that you've got to travel two hours to go see. Our fans aren't going to make that trip too often, so that has really hurt us.
"But as far as the region goes, I think it's a lot more favorable to us than last year. Last year the region was loaded with senior-dominated teams, but this year those teams are younger, so that should be to our advantage."
Estes isn't one to set his goals low, even coming off an 0-10 season. His team's goal is to not only break Falkville's streak of six seasons without the playoffs, but to win a game in the postseason as well.
"(The coaches) have been telling the guys that our goal is not to win a game, but to win games. Our goal is to get into the playoffs, and win a game in the playoffs. We're not going to be happy just to get in, we want to get in and compete. That's where we want to be, and that's where we hope to be on a yearly basis."