By Lee Davis
Whenever Homewood coach Ben Berguson discusses his 2016 team, he always points out a strange quirk in the Patriots’ recent won-lost records.
“For the past four seasons, we’ve won exactly nine games each,” said Berguson, who is entering his third year as head coach. “That’s pretty good at a lot of places, but we’d really like to improve on that this year.”
True enough. Homewood is 36-10 since 2012, but the Patriots haven’t claimed a state championship since the Bob Newton era a decade ago. Expectations are always high, and this could be the season Berguson and his charges break the nine-win ceiling.
Homewood came painfully close last season, falling to powerful Clay-Chalkville 40-39 in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs. The Patriots hope to make up that final yard and dying clock this time around.
“We’ve built a solid program here,” Berguson said. “But we want to get to the next level.”
If Homewood does get to the double digit win mark in 2016, it probably will mean that senior running back Chestin Jones had a banner season. Jones is dangerous as a runner and pass receiver.
“Chestin is probably our best athlete,” Berguson said. “As he goes, so goes our offense.
He’s a tremendous player and a great young man and we are expecting a lot from him.”
The good news is that Jones isn’t the Patriots’ only quality running back. Junior Nick McCoy and sophomore David Robertson are also outstanding backs and should take some of the pressure off Jones.
“We’re fortunate to have three really good running backs,” Berguson said.
Nobody at Homewood is sure who the starting quarterback will be, but in this case that’s a good thing. Junior Ty Hatcher and sophomore Larkin Williams are locked in a battle for the starting role and the Patriot coaches are comfortable with either one.
“Both Ty and Larkin are excellent at both running and passing the ball,” Berguson said. “There’s really no separation between them. We’re planning on playing both of them a lot.”
Hatcher comes by his talents naturally. His father, Chris, is the head football coach at Samford University and was an all-conference quarterback at Valdosta State in the 1990s.
Whoever starts at quarterback will find a bevy of impressive targets. Senior Fred Williams, junior TyShawn Buckner and sophomore Logan Padgett have outstanding size and speed.
One critical area is the offensive line, where senior Ethan Sherman is the only returning starter.
“We lost almost our entire line to graduation,” said Berguson. “We could be in good shape, but some young men are going to have to step up very quickly if things are going to come together.”
Berguson will be paying special attention to his offensive front, since he coaches the line himself.
Newcomer Ibrahima Sylla, a transfer from Jackson-Olin, will handle both place-kicking and punting duties for the Patriots.
Defensively, all-state lineman Griffin Gentry has moved to the collegiate ranks and Berguson has many holes to fill in the front wall.
“Griffin’s going to be hard to replace, no doubt about it,” the coach said. “But as is the case with our offensive line, some young men will have to step up.”
If the line is a question mark, the linebackers are not.
Homewood returns three seniors and a junior who make up a tough and experienced unit. The inside linebackers are senior Riley Meeks and junior Trent Owens. On the outside are seniors Antarious Mitchell and Elliott Yacu. Yacu is also a lacrosse standout.
The Patriots always have a strong secondary, and 2016 should be no exception. The leaders could be senior Jake Biles and junior C.D. Daniels. Daniels started all 12 games last season and already has a scholarship offer from Samford.
Homewood was largely unaffected by the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s realignment, landing in Class 6A’s Region Five. Their league rivals will include Hueytown, Jackson-Olin, John Carroll Catholic, Parker, Ramsay and Shades Valley.
“One characteristic of our region is that there is a lot of team speed,” Berguson said. “Hopefully we have improved in that department as well. Every night will be a battle.”
The Patriots’ non-region slate is rugged as well. Homewood opened its season Aug. 18 with a 21-14 win over Pelham in a neutral site game at Samford University before visiting Class 7A mega-power Vestavia Hills the following week. So the young linemen will be required to grow up quickly.
While the road is rugged, Berguson is only focused on what he and his players can control. “We can’t worry about who we play,” he said. “We can only worry about ourselves. We need to get better every week. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
If Homewood can avoid key injuries, the chances of reaching that elusive 10-win mark are better than good.