By Lee Davis
For a short time in 2014, Hoover looked to be an average football team.
The Bucs lost to an excellent Miami Central team in their season opener. It got even worse the next week when Colquitt County – coached by former Hoover coach Rush Propst – dominated the Bucs 35-14.
Was this the end of Hoover’s long reign as the kingpin of high school football in Alabama?
Not exactly; the Bucs stormed back, winning 12 in a row to win the first ever championship of the new Alabama High School Athletic Association’s Class 7A, which also happened to be its third consecutive state title.
The 35-21 lacing of Prattville in the state 7A final also gave Hoover its ninth state championship since 2000 and improved its overall record in that period to an eye-popping 196-21.
So no, the Orange dynasty isn’t going away any time soon.
In fact it might be better than ever.
“It’s all about having great players who are great people,” said Buc coach Josh Niblett. “The expectation level here is high and that’s the way it’s supposed to be at Hoover.”
Offensively, Niblett will have plenty of size, experience and speed at his disposal. Battling for playing time at quarterback are senior Chris Vacarella – the son of a former Auburn University star – and junior Garrett Farquhar. Both have the mastery of the Bucs’ sophisticated system required to be successful.
Senior Galen Richardson is projected as Hoover’s top running back, with junior C.J. Sturdivant providing a valuable one-two punch from the backfield.
Hoover’s offensive line should be among the best in Alabama. Junior Austin Carter anchors the inside at center. Left guard Nick Eldridge is a giant at 6-2, 295 pounds. Dalton Nelson and Alex Loukotka are entrenched in the tackle slots. Garrett Sager and Joseph Timpa strongly fit into the picture. They average just over 250 pounds per man.
“We’ve got good depth and size in the offensive line,” Niblett said.
The Bucs also have an outstanding crop of receivers. Cortez Hall, Cedric Jackson, Marcus Hollifield, Jimmie Johnson and Kam Ford will all create problems for opposing defensive backfields. Johnson has earned the nickname “Energizer Bunny” for his speed and quickness. Senior tight end Quincy Cox will also see time at split end and H-back.
“We think we have enough depth to create a lot of mismatches,” Niblett said. “Lots of our guys will get opportunities.”
Sophomore Barret Pickering will draw field goal and extra point assignments. Senior Bailey Aultman is the punter.
Defensively, only three starters return. That’s a little misleading because Hoover rotates so many players.
Taures Payne is an anchor of the front wall, along with Tyler Byrd, Ricky Palao and Khamari Brown. They average nearly 240 pounds apiece.
Jeremiah Moon is a leader at linebacker, with Kholbe Coleman and Christon Taylor also expected to be outstanding.
As always, the Bucs’ secondary should be fast and hard-hitting. Senior P.J. Hall is an all-star candidate at cornerback. Malachi Herron and Tony Bennett, also seniors, will also play key roles. Junior Ben Abercrombie will be at a safety post.
For all the talent at his command, Niblett believes his team’s greatest asset can’t be measured with a scale or a stop watch.
“It’s all about the leadership and team unity,” he said. This is about guys working hard to get better. There is such a culture of excellence here that has been built over time. We are the protectors of that tradition.”
Hoover will again compete in Class 7A’s Region Three, and will naturally enter the season as a heavy favorite to repeat as league champion. But it won’t be easy. The Bucs must travel to Mountain Brook, Oak Mountain and long-time nemesis Vestavia Hills. Additionally, Hoover will face out-of-state powers from Bradenton and Citra, Florida.
“I’m excited about where we are right now,” Niblett said. “Every team comes together at a little different pace. These guys have worked so hard. They are determined to be successful.”
For a team that appears to have few weaknesses, Niblett said he still has his concerns.
“I worry about everything,” he explained. “These players are just like my sons. Nobody wants to receive that phone call in the middle of the night. We are here to make sure that our guys are doing what they are supposed to be doing – and making good decisions, just as any parent would be doing.”
Whatever Niblett is doing, it’s working. Since taking over from Propst after the scandal-marred 2007 season, he has gone 96-8 with four state championships and three runner-up finishes. Niblett took one of America’s finest high school programs and made it better than ever. By instilling a new discipline and focus, he picked Hoover football up from the front pages of newspapers and placed it back on the sports pages – and that is a good thing.
“Every day, we want to re-invent ourselves a little and get better,” said Niblett. “We want a new version of what we’ve been in the past and do all the things required to keep going.”
Hoover’s dynasty will finally end one day. Nobody knows for sure, but it probably won’t be in 2015. ϖ