By Lee Davis
There’s a new look for Briarwood football in 2016.
The new look isn’t the coach, as veteran Fred Yancey begins his 27th year as the leader of the Lions.
The new look isn’t in the uniforms, either, as the team’s gold helmets and blue jerseys have become one of the area’s finest traditions.
The new look comes in the schedule, as Briarwood, a private Christian school, moves from Class 6A to Class 5A. The move brought on by the Alabama Athletic Association’s reclassification at the end of last season aligns the program with schools of a more comparable size.
Gone from the slate in 2016 are larger schools such as Homewood, Walker, Hueytown and Pelham. In their places are smaller schools such as Fairfield, Moody, Pleasant Grove and St. Clair County. The Lions were usually competitive with the big schools, but the realignment allows them to battle on friendlier territory.
“This is really the first time since 1999 that we’re competing in a region with schools that have a student enrollment similar to ours,” Yancey said. “This means we will lose some traditional opponents that draw people to our games, but it’s a trade-off. If we have a winning team, we will draw fans.”
While the new classification is good news for Briarwood boosters, even better news is that the Lions return considerable talent from last year’s team, which went 5-7 and worked its way to the second round of the Class 6A playoffs.
“We’ve got more speed and a little more size than maybe we’ve had over the past few years,” Yancey said. “I think we have a chance to make an impact in our new region.”
Senior William Gray, at 200 pounds, is the starter at quarterback. A fine passer and runner, he’s also an outstanding leader.
“William can punt, too, which will hopefully give our opponents something else to think about,” Yancey said.
The fullback positon features three outstanding talents. Sophomore J.R. Tran Reno may be the starter, but junior Ashton Dominque and senior Wilson Hand also will see playing time.
“They will be battling to play, and that’s a good thing,” Yancey said. “All of them will help us.”
Senior Barrett Tindall is a proven performer at halfback and junior Carson Eddy works in the slot as the “Z-back.”
“Carson has good speed and is a dangerous receiver,” the coach said.
Briarwood’s offensive line should be solid. Senior Conner Hutson, a 230-pound two-year letterman, returns at center. Another experienced senior, Will Baumbach, also will see significant playing time.
On the left side, guard Tucker Johnston has plenty of experience and tackle Garrett Bell is a 6-4, 254-pound giant.
The right guard is senior Nathan Cale and the tackle is senior Hunter Whatley, who weighs 225 pounds.
“We’ve got some guys on our offensive line who have proven they can play,” Yancey said.
Manning the tight end spot is junior P.C. Strickland, an outstanding blocker and pass receiver.
Gray will find excellent targets as well in his wide receiver corps. Kolby Kwarcinski will be the inside receiver with Luke Miskelley and Bradford Pattillo as the outside receivers.
Sophomore Luke Hess will handle place-kicking duties.
Defense, traditionally a Lion strong point, should be strong again in 2016. Three starters return on the defensive line. Seniors Jordan Harmon and Champ Stewart occupy the end positions. Both are 215-pounders. In the interior positions are Cooper Thompson, a 240-pound spark plug, and Patrick Blythe.
Briarwood’s linebacker corps looks set as well. One leader may be junior Gabe Russell, whose father, Lamonde, was an outstanding receiver for the University of Alabama in the 1980s. Senior Ethan Housel and sophomore Mark Hand are also rangy and effective.
Yancey will play three outstanding cornerbacks in Hudson Hartsfield, Andrew Sherrod and Jonathan Hill. The safeties are solid as well, with junior Carson Donnelly – his dad also played at Alabama – and senior Bennett Miles.
“We’ve got good kids who have been practicing hard,” Yancey said. “It should help us to be in Class 5A, but it doesn’t mean anything will be any easier. We have to go out to practice and be ready to compete every single day.”
The Lions’ schedule may be more manageable than in the past, but there are still plenty of minefields, including trips to Wenonah and Mortimer Jordan in September.
The Lions kicked off the season with a 20-7 loss to Class 7A power Vestavia Hills in a jamboree Aug. 19 before facing Class 6A’s Chelsea in the season opener the following Friday night.
Yancey isn’t taking the heat off himself, either. At age 71, he has no plans to retire.
“I feel really good,” he said. “I still enjoy coaching as much as I ever have. As long as I think I’m making a contribution, I’ll be here.”
In 27 years, Fred Yancey has become synonymous with Briarwood football. Nothing as mundane as a reclassification will change that.