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Quick scrimmage tests Cats

POSTED: August 6, 2014 11:00 a.m.
Adam Wynn/Barrow County News

Apalachee’s Kent Knowles works out at receiver during a preseason practice. The Wildcats face their first real test Friday.

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With the autumnal weather that much of north Georgia has been experiencing as of late, fans may be forgiven for thinking that football season is already halfway gone. On the contrary, teams are just getting ready for their first scrimmages.

Apalachee has the first of two scrimmages awaiting them Friday night as they travel to Morgan County for an unusual early August encounter.

“I said it’s too quick last week, now it’s even quicker,” Apalachee head varsity football coach Shane Davis laughed. “Our kids are only three days in pads and by then they’ll be five days in pads. That’s just awfully, awfully early, but everybody will be in the same boat.

“It’ll at least give us a gauge of where we are and where we need to go, I hope, but part of me is also afraid that there’s a learning curve and it’s hard to realize where you are when you’re watching kids who are little bit uncertain about what their assignments are.”

Friday’s scrimmage is going to be a unique format given the early setting, meaning that it will look and feel somewhat different from a normal Friday night. The first half will be the most like a regular season game with normal situations and plays, but there will be no live special teams.

Special teams will still punt and kick, but there will be no receiving or defending on special teams. Officials will just move the ball and set up for the next play.

In the third quarter, coaches will have the option to play scenario football meaning that they can line up for five plays from a third-and-five situation or five plays from first-and-ten if they so choose. After two rotations of swapping scenarios, the teams will go into an overtime procedure and play from normal overtime positions at the 15-yard line.

The fourth quarter will allow non-starters and JV players an opportunity to get on the field in a full-pads, game speed situation.

The Morgan County Bulldogs are coming off of a decent season where they finished 6-4 and 3-4 in Region 8-AAA. The Bulldogs are used to sustained success as they have been to the playoffs three of the last four years and have just three losing seasons since 1995.

For a program started by former Georgia tailback Charles “Rabbit” Smith in 1948, and a team that won two consecutive state titles and 31 straight games in Class-B from 1958 to 1960, the Bulldogs have done what few programs in their position have done. They won back then and they win today.

“I worked at Morgan County as an assistant back in 1998 and 1999 and we were very successful. We were 9-1 both those years in the same region. In fact, Bill Malone who is the coach there now was the offensive coordinator then and we’re friends, we still talk once a week,” Davis reminisced.

“To go up against them or a Morgan County team, it’s a team that expects to be successful and they expect to win. The kids are going to be well-coached and the kids are going to play physical and play smart,” Davis added. “It’s a good team and it’s a good facility and experience down there.”

While Morgan County could draw for retirement, Apalachee is just entering adolescence. The Wildcats enter their 15th season of football at Apalachee, putting them in a unique position. They are no longer the new kid on the block, but the Wildcats have significantly less history to pull from than more established programs like Morgan County.

The Wildcat football program has gone through ebbs and flows in their first 14 years, featuring a pair of 1-9 seasons separated by five years of moderate success for such a young school as well as a 12-1 season surrounded by middle of the road years.

This year’s batch are coming off of Apalachee’s worst season in school history at 0-10, carrying a 10-game winless streak into Friday night’s scrimmage.

While a win against Morgan County would do nothing for the official streak, it could be enough to erase that stigma from the team’s mind. The unique scrimmage environment could skew the score in strange ways, but a win is a win.

“We don’t want to go there and say it doesn’t matter if we’re behind. We’re not going to script the plays, at least that’s not our plan right now,” Davis said. “If we’re behind at the end of the first half and we have the ball…we’re going to try to score.

“Then again, that’s not the end all. If we come out of there and win 50-0, we’re not going to come out of there and say, ‘We’ve got this thing, let’s roll.’ We’re going to continue to evaluate.”

For Davis, it comes down to individual performances and individual positions, but he also knows that the confidence game could prove important.

“A win would be wonderful for confidence of teenaged kids, but at the end of the day we could win the game and play really bad in a lot of spots,” Davis pointed out. “You could play really bad and find a way to win a game, or you could play really good…and find a way to lose a game if it’s a well-matched game.”

Davis hopes that his team wants to win and he coaches them to want to win, but he also coaches to understand what the real source of their confidence should be.

“Kids are often so fragile in their confidence, but we are trying to get to a point where Friday night doesn’t dictate our confidence level. What we do every day should dictate our confidence. Our kids should have confidence in themselves right now,” Davis added.

“’Well golly, coach, you’re 0-10,’ but they should confidence in themselves. Our kids have worked really hard. Our kids have stayed the course. Our kids have continued to buy in to a system that’s not broken, and they should have some confidence in what they do,” Davis preached.

Last season’s Wildcats faced a difficult early schedule with five straight games against eventual playoff teams, including two second-round teams and one semifinalist. After losing those five mighty challenges, the Wildcats struggled with their confidence game for the last five weeks of the season and wound up winless.

For those reasons and more, a win against Morgan County would mean a phenomenal start to the season, even if the victory was just a moral one.

At this point in the preseason, the focus for Davis and his coaching staff is pretty general. Every aspect of the team needs to be retooled and tightened up before the real Friday nights get going.

Then again, looking at last season’s scoring lines, the main focus of this scrimmage and subsequent practices might ought to be defense.

In every game of 2013, the Wildcats allowed more than 25 points. Against juggernauts like Gainesville and Flowery Branch, those totals are not surprising and quite understandable. On more than one occasion, though, teams improved on their average points scored when playing Apalachee.

Seven different teams scored either their highest or second-highest points totals of the season against the Wildcats. All told, Apalachee gave up an average of 39.3 points per game.

“Well at the end of the day we’ve got to tackle better,” Davis noted. “When you play teams who we play that can put the ball in space, you have got to tackle well. Teams are doing that, teams are going to keep doing that. You have to minimize the big play.”

As successful as Morgan County was last year, they were rather ambivalent when it came to offense. The Bulldogs would get shut out one week in a 40-0 rout at Elbert County, but then they would turn around and score 38 against East Jackson seven days later.

Facing Morgan County should offer the Wildcats some good work on offense as the Dogs struggled keep most opponents out of the end zone last year. Against ten opponents, Morgan County gave up an average of 25.7 points while scoring just 27.7 points themselves.

Apalachee faced a bit of a glass ceiling last season in regards to scoring as at no point did they accrue more than 21 points. The Cats twice earned 21, against Heritage and Loganville, while adding scores of 20 points twice more against Flowery Branch and Winder-Barrow.

Sure, there is something to be said for a team scoring their season high against defense-hungry Heritage, but the season high needs to be higher than 21 points for the Wildcats to have a chance at competing in this high-speed region.

“In turn, we haven’t had as much of the big play on the offensive side,” Davis acknowledged. “Sometimes making up for big play on defense is us making a big play on offense. It doesn’t always have to come from defense. It could be a special teams play. You have to have a spark somewhere.

“In our league, it’s tough to put that all on defense. We’ve played some offenses that I believe…points scored wise probably rank pretty high in the state with what those guys have been able to do.”

As far as how the offense could accomplish that, Davis takes an equally fundamental approach.

“We’ve got to control the ball. We’ve got to keep the other team off the field. We don’t put a point total on how many we need to score,” Davis noted. “Everybody has goals and you can say you want to score this many, and that’s fine on paper, but at the end of the day, if they score seven we want eight. If they score 42, we want 43.

“We need to win the time of possession…and we need to capitalize on some opportunities,” Davis specified. “And I’m sure every coach in the state is saying the same thing right now.”

Numbers and statistics from last season can be great tools for analytics and predictions, but the new batch of Dogs and Cats will have a chance to put together their own numbers Friday night on Legion Field at Bill Corley Stadium.

 

“Just to be able to get under the lights on a Friday night will be a good experience,” Davis said, referencing the youth and relative inexperience at certain key positions. “Those guys need that. Not only are they young as far as age, but they’re young in experience, as well.”

 

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