By Rubin E. Grant
First-year Oak Mountain head football coach Tyler Crane would like nothing better than to see the Eagles soar again this season – and even higher than they did in 2020.
Oak Mountain reached the Class 7A quarterfinals last year before being eliminated by Hoover.
“I would like to end this season playing at Protective Stadium,” Crane said, referring to the site of the AHSAA Super 7 championships in December at the new stadium in Birmingham. “In order for us to do that, we have to win every game.”
That’s a monumental task, considering Oak Mountain plays in the same region with two-time defending 7A champion Thompson, perennial powerhouse Hoover and highly competitive Hewitt-Trussville.
Crane replaces Cris Bell, who was voted the 2020 OTMJ Coach of the Year after leading the Eagles to a 7-5 record and their first playoff victory since 2014. Bell is now the head coach at Scottsboro.
Crane comes to Oak Mountain from Central-Phenix City, where he had been an assistant. He previously was an assistant at Oak Mountain in 2016 and 2017.
He believes the Eagles have the talent to make a run at a state title this fall.
“We’ve got a good amount of starters back, some leaders,” he said. “Our players are constantly learning, looking to get better and doing things the right way. It’s good to see.”
The Eagles will have a slightly different look on offense this season under Crane, going from an option attack to the spread.
“It’s nothing complicated, but it will be different,” he said. “On defense, we’ll do a lot of the same things we’ve done in the past.”
Here’s a position-by-position rundown of the 2021 Eagles:
Senior Evan Smith returns for his senior season. A starter since he was a freshman, he’s one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the Southeast. Smith was the unanimous selection for the 2020 OTMJ Offensive Player of the Year honor, finishing the season with 1,719 yards rushing on 171 carries and completing 44 of 103 passing for 620 yards and six scores. He has committed orally to Northwestern.
“Evan is our guy,” Crane said. “He’s a good athlete. He’ll have a chance to throw it a little bit more, but we also want to show we’re more than just Evan. We’ve got some other athletes who can make plays in space. I think he’ll have a big year as long as he stays healthy.”
The Eagles have two young players backing up Smith, sophomore Drody Hackbarth and freshman Will O’Dell.
The Eagles will rely on a combination of running backs that include seniors C.J. Branson and Aiden Laughlin and junior Trey Vassell.
“C.J. is a new kid,” Crane said. “This is the first year he’s played.”
Crane believes the Eagles have good options at receiving with the likes of seniors Ethan Hammett, Joseph Regan and Cade George.
“All three have done well in practice,” Crane said.
Peyton Swann, Jack Ronilo, Jackson Blackwell and freshman Zach Fitzgerald will also be in the rotation.
“We’ve got guys who can make plays, but it is a matter of playing with confidence,” Crane said.
Swann and Blackwell also will serve as hybrid players at tight end, H-back and fullback, along with Laughlin.
The Eagles have some experience up front with senior guard Nic Rigdon, senior center Mason Burnett and junior guard Hudson Youngblood. The starting tackles will be juniors Luke Oswalt and Sawyer Hutto, but there’s little depth.
“That’s been a big struggle,” Crane said. “We’re trying to build some depth.”
Gavin Nelson and Zahc Smith will be the defensive ends while Davis Coggins plays nose tackle.
Crane said Nelson and Smith can also slide down the interior, allowing the Eagles to use their outside linebackers as ends.
Mattox Vines, Cam Atkinson, Carter Lehman and Jah’ki Mullen will rotate at linebacker.
“They will all do the same job at times,” Crane said.
Senior Quest Agee and junior Garrett Murphy will man the safety positions, and both will slide down to linebacker at times. Junior Devan Moss and senior Corbit Grundhoefer will start at cornerback.
Crane said he is excited to see what juniors Davion Foster and Bobby Laury will do when they get the opportunity to play.
Murphy will handle all the kicking chores with Ellis Porch helping out as a punter.