By Tyler Waldrep
Historic seasons have a way of sneaking up on people. Perhaps that’s what makes them so special.
Last year, Oak Mountain’s inclusion in Region 3 of the new Class 7A had some questioning the program’s ability to stay competitive. Coach Cris Bell’s team responded with the school’s second 10-win season.
“They have confidence that they can play with anybody,” Bell said. “That’s something that, in the past, I don’t know that that was always the case.”
The players aren’t the only ones who gained some confidence last year. Bell said several people have told him they expect good things from this year’s team.
“I think our big challenge now is how do we handle outside expectations,” Bell said.
There is reason to expect a lot from the Eagles, who return five starters on both sides of the ball, but guys need to step up and fill those vacant spots. Perhaps Oak Mountain’s biggest question mark headed into the season is the offensive line. Second team all-state center Justice Hammond will be tasked with anchoring the line this year.
“I wouldn’t trade him for any offensive lineman in the state,” he said. “We’ve gotta find those other four, five, six guys that are going to be able to come in and play with him.”
Bell said candidates to join Hammond on the line include sophomore Ben Wilke and a pair of brothers, Jacob and Nick Feenker. Bell said former tight end Alex King also has had a good camp so far, and other players could end up seeing the field plenty when everything is said and done.
Returning tight end Cole Johnson will also be on hand to help the line protect 1,000-yard rusher and passer Warren Shader. Bell said his quarterback is not afraid to make a decision.
“He has guts coming out of his ears,” Bell said. “It certainly makes you sleep a whole lot easier when you know you got a guy like that coming back.”
Sleeping could become difficult for Bell if his quarterback has to run the ball all the time. Bell said running backs Daniel Salchert and Coleman Reeves will help Shader keep the offense moving. Salchert got a lot of experience as a back last year, but Bell said the former slot receiver has really grown into his new position.
“(Salchert) can make things happen,” Bell said. “He’s a guy we’ll throw to out of the backfield. We’ll line him up out wide and do some stuff with him out there as well.”
The Eagles, being an option team, will run the ball plenty, but Bell said the receivers could be one of the strengths of the offense. A year ago Bell wasn’t sure who Shader was going to throw to, but now guys such as Nathan Jones and Preston Christopher appear able to help senior Reid Golson out.
“We really like what he (Golson) brings to the table,” Bell said. “He makes us better by being out there.”
If the offense fails to move the ball far enough for either John Carroll transfer Nick Carney or Jackson Murphy to kick the field goal, then Shader will stay on the field to handle the punt.
“We are always a threat to fake it,” he said. “We probably have not taken advantage of that threat enough.”
Bell might decide to fake it more this season, but he can’t do it every time. The defense is going to have to make stops. Bell said this is not the most physical defense he has ever coached, but he does think it might be the smartest.
Oak Mountain has at least one returning starter at every level of the defense. That should help the Eagles limit the growing pains that come with breaking in new starters. With two players returning on the line, Bell said that could be a strength of the defense.
“We’ve got Armond Lloyd and Avery Holsomback,” he said. “Those are two guys you can build around.”
Bell said that senior Zach Pierce has made great strides to secure one of the remaining spots on the defensive line. He said a handful of guys are battling to lock up the defensive tackle spot.
There is also plenty of experience at linebacker as both Josh Jones and Spencer Hughes saw the field last season. Three upperclassmen are fighting to secure the last spot, alongside them.
While the position battles rage up front, only one remains in the secondary. Three guys will compete to claim the starting corner spot opposite senior Mitchell Jones.
Two more seniors, Hall Norton and Payton Youngblood, have claimed the starting safety spots. Bell said Youngblood also finds time to be a receiver for the team when he is not playing basketball or throwing the javelin for the school.
“He’s the only guy we have right now that we utilize on both sides of the ball,” Bell said. “I think he’s as good a football player that’s out there.”
All things considered, Bell said he feels good about the defense. With the opponents Oak Mountain faces this year, anything less than perfect may not be enough.
“There is no margin of error,” Bell said. “If you show up and you are less than your best at all, then you will get your brains kicked in in this league.”
The tough schedule also gives Oak Mountain a chance to prove it’s the real deal. Another 10-win season could help Oak Mountain establish itself as the powerhouse team that Bell believes it can be.
“This group wants to leave a legacy,” he said. “They want to leave this program better than it’s ever been, and they certainly have the opportunity to do that.”