By Rubin E. Grant
After winning two consecutive Class 7A football championships and five state titles in the past six years, the Hoover Bucs could be excused for allowing complacency to set in.
Except head coach Josh Niblett is not about to let that happen.
“The key for us is to continue to be the hunter and not the hunted,” Niblett said. “It’s all about competing.”
The competition begins on the practice field.
“It’s like a war every day in practice,” Niblett said. “Some days our offense makes our defense look bad and some days our defense makes our offense look bad. We’re trying to learn how to compete because, as someone once said, it’s harder to stay on top than getting on top.”
If the Bucs are going to stay on top, they will have to do it with a new starting quarterback and a rebuilt offensive line. Quarterback Jalen Parker, who led the Bucs to the 2017 title, has graduated and so have four of the starting offensive linemen who protected him.
Ultra-talented Robby Ashford, a 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound junior, is expected to take over at quarterback. He already has SEC offers from Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and Missouri, although he has yet to start a varsity game.
“He’s a dynamic athlete,” Niblett said. “He’s got a great arm and can make all the throws, and he also runs well. We’re excited about what he brings to the table.”
Sophomore Josh Lundy will serve as Ashford’s primary backup.
“He had to take all the reps in the spring and summer,” Niblett said. “He did an unbelievable job learning what we’re doing.”
Junior Jack Mayberry is another backup quarterback.
At running back, 5-foot-10-inch, 198-pound senior Larry McCammon returns. He rushed for 1,498 yards and 21 touchdowns last year.
“He’s probably the best running back I’ve ever coached,” Niblett said.
Senior Kaulin Jackson, junior Anthony Hayes and sophomore Dylan Pauly will also get touches in the backfield. Niblett said Pauly “has a chance to be really good.”
At tight end, senior Kole Allen is back from last year along with senior Brooks Brymer. Fullback Jesse Kelly also returns.
Senior George Pickens, an Auburn commit, will be the Bucs’ go-to receiver. “He’s a dynamic player who can do things that other guys can’t do,” Niblett said. “He gives us a chance to stretch the field vertically and horizontally.”
Seniors Zach Elam, Xavier Long and M.J. Rogers, a transfer from Spain Park, also are in the mix, as are Omari Brown, Jamari Buye, Jake Tucker and Cooper Tullo.
“We’ve got a lot of depth at receiver,” Niblett said. “We’re going to play as many as we can, especially early in the season, to keep fresh legs going.”
Center David Bodden, a 6-foot-3-inch, 271-pound junior, will anchor the rebuilt offensive line. Both of his older brothers played for the Bucs.
The guards will be 6-foot-3-inch, 320-pound senior Ellis Adams and 6-foot-3-inch, 269-pound senior Ryan Houston. The tackles are 6-foot-3-inch, 276-pound senior Garrett Lepkowski and 6-foot-4-inch, 251-pound junior Harrison Ozgun.
Seniors Brandon Goodwin, Trey Reynolds and Reed Watson and junior Luke Godwin will serve as reserves.
“We’ve got a little depth, which I am excited about,” Niblett said. “They have actually grown as a unit.”
On the D
On the defensive line, the Bucs will have senior nose guard Bryce Carnes and defensive ends Sam Suswam, a junior, Joseph Davis, a junior, and Ryan Caldbeck, a senior, in their 3-4 set.
The outside linebackers are seniors Greg Russell, Kam Robinson and Simeon Palmore and junior Aarren Smith. Russell recorded 18 sacks last season.
The inside linebackers are 6-foot-5-inch, 218-pound senior Nick Curtis, junior Jeptha Kilgore, and sophomores Marcus Williams and Josh Smith, the younger brother of Curtis, who Niblett said “is going to be a really special player.”
The secondary will have 6-foot-1-inch senior Jabari Moore at cornerback. Niblett describes him as a “ballhawking, physical cover guy.” The other corners are junior Codey Martin and Seth Parker.
The safeties are seniors Myles Spurling and Levi McCree and junior Kory Chapman.
“I feel good about the guys we have at the back of our defense,” Niblett said.
Senior Will Reichard will handle all the kicking chores. He’s an Alabama commit who is rated as the top kicker in the country in his class by 247 Sports.
“We take a lot of pride in our special teams,” Niblett said. “We do whatever we can to change field position. We’re fortunate to be blessed with a kicker
like Will in that regard.”
The Race Begins
The Bucs once again will compete in Class 7A, Region 3, always one of the toughest regions in the state. It includes Thompson, Hewitt-Trussville, Spain Park, Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, Oak Mountain and Tuscaloosa County. Hoover also will play two out-of-state schools this season, hosting St. John’s College High School out of Washington, D.C., on Aug. 31 and IMG Academy out of Florida on Nov. 2.
Hoover opens the season Aug. 25 at the Hoover Met against defending Class 6A champion Pinson Valley. The game will be part of the nationally televised Geico ESPN High School Kickoff doubleheader. Hoover and Pinson will kick off at 11 a.m., followed by Hewitt-Trussville against Cedar Grove (Ga.) at 2:30 p.m.
“We’ve been on TV before, so we don’t take it for granted,” Niblett said. “I think our guys can be more relaxed since they’ve done it before.”