By Tyler Waldrep
Oak Mountain coach Cris Bell didn’t need a visit to the hospital to realize things needed to change for his team, but that’s what he got.
In February, spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the open spaces in the spine, crushed the nerves between Bell’s L2 and L5 vertebrae and left him unable to walk for nine days.
“I remember they would move me from the bed to the wheelchair and I would feel like I had just run a 2-mile race,” Bell said. “It would exhaust me.”
Shortly after Bell’s six-week stint in the hospital came to an end, he returned to coaching his team aided by a golf cart and a walking stick. He finally was able to do what he had been planning to do for most of the offseason – create a leadership council.
“In reality, I want more than just a handful of leaders,” he said. “I want to try to develop leadership amongst as many of our players as we can.”
Rising sophomores, juniors and seniors were included on the council, which originally consisted of 16 players. When the summer drew to a close, Bell’s council told him it needed to expand to include two guys competing to be the Will linebacker for the Eagles, Justin Evans and Max McLaughlin, and the starting outside linebacker, Mingyu Le.
“They were leading by example despite the fact that they weren’t on the leadership council, and really that’s what we’re trying to do, trying to promote all of our guys to develop leadership,” Bell said.
Le’s backup, Xzavier Brown, and starting middle linebacker Spencer Hughes already were on the leadership council, giving the linebacking corps five of 19 total leadership positions on the team.
Thomas Pechman is one of Oak Mountain’s three returning defensive starters this season, and he is the only one so far to have locked down a starting spot. Three guys – Brett Cruce, Zach Nelson and Jackson Sauers – will battle for the other corner spot, while Connor Webb and Hunter Martinez compete for one safety spot and Davis Manning and Jackson Murphy compete at the other.
The secondary is hardly the only place competition is taking place on what Bell believes might be his deepest team at most, if not every, position.
Matthew Pflaum and Jordan Davis will compete to start at one end of the defensive line, while Peter Kolar and Trey Meadows will battle for time at the other. Two guys, Daniel Perkins and Whit Jackson, could see time in between those spots at the nose tackle position
“They’ve all had good offseasons and worked hard,” Bell said. “We’re going to be small; I don’t know if we’ll average 200 pounds up front defensively.”
With only three returning defensive starters, it’s crucial that Oak Mountain’s offense picks up first downs and remains on the field. For that to happen, the Eagles’ new starting quarterback, Wyatt Legas, will have to be decisive with the football.
“A bad decision is better than no decision. The worst decision our guys could do is be paralyzed,” Bell said. “If we make a bad decision, we like to think we’ll still try to pick up a couple yards. We just can’t allow those bad decisions to turn into turnovers.”
Bell said Legas has a lot of the intangibles that helped former quarterback Warren Shader achieve so much success at Oak Mountain. But if there’s an area in which Legas has the advantage over Shader, it’s his decision making in the passing game.
The Eagles’ option offense will limit Legas’ passing attempts, but when he does throw the ball, his primary receiving threats will include Noah Egan and Nathan Jones.
Tight end Carson Bobo could also prove to be a threat in the passing game, but his primary responsibilities likely will involve blocking for Legas and the other ball carriers.
Four starters return to help Bobo up front: Ben Wilke at left tackle, former right guard Jacob Feenker at center, Nick Feenker at right guard and William Roberson at right tackle. The lone newcomer to the line, Eli Lombardo, will replace Nick Feenker at left guard.
“They got 40 starts under their belt collectively, so we expect them to make some hay,” Bell said.
Oak Mountain might look small up front this season. Outside of Nick Feenker, the other four guys weigh between 205 and 225 pounds. But Bell said this might be the deepest offensive line he’s coached at Oak Mountain. He’s confident he can play eight or even 10 total guys there if needed.
If the offensive line can maintain its blocks, then the Eagles’ option offense will have plenty of weapons lined up in the backfield. Perhaps the most dangerous of those will be running back Daniel Salchert.
“He’s gutsy, he’s a player, he’s a fun kid to just watch,” Bell said. “You couldn’t ask for a better guy at that position with the skill set that he brings.”
As a sophomore, Salchert averaged more than six yards per carry, but last season his average dropped closer to five. He responded by spending the offseason running indoor track and hitting the weight room more so he can be both stronger and faster in his final season with the Eagles.
Bell said he’s not the only player who responded that way.
“We always preach we’re going to outwork people and maybe last year we didn’t,” Bell said. “For them to recognize that without me having to prompt them shows a lot of maturity on their part.”
Bell’s team, coming off of a five-win season, might not have the same high expectations surrounding it that the program had a year ago, when the Eagles were coming off the school’s second-ever 10-win season, but what it does have is hunger.
“You get a taste of the playoffs, and that’s a good taste. You want to get that back,” Bell said. “They’ve got a little bit of a chip on their shoulder.”