By Lee Davis
Hoover coach Josh Niblett has celebrated four state championships with his players since he took over in 2008, but somewhere along the way the cheers became less notable.
At times, all he could hear following a win was a sigh.
“That’s kind of been a change of thought around here because, normally, when you won, you just went, ‘Wheeeew. Alright. Glad we won,’” Niblett said. “It was almost a relief. I don’t want that anymore. I want the kids to enjoy winning.”
When Hoover met Spain Park in the semifinal round of the playoffs last season, there was nothing to celebrate as the Buccaneers found themselves eliminated before the championship game for the first time since Niblett took over the program. That 7-6 loss also prevented Hoover’s seniors from leaving high school with four straight state championships.
Those weren’t the only impressive streaks Hoover recently saw end. For the first time since 2000, the Bucs appeared outside of the top two spots when the Alabama Sports Writers Association released its preseason poll for the upcoming season.
“It’s (a) different vibe when you come in these doors,” Niblett said. “We don’t care what everybody else is saying.”
Niblett said he’s not worried about starting the season at No. 3 in the poll. He’s a lot more interested in how his team and its new starting quarterback, Garrett Farquhar, will respond to adversity on the field.
Niblett said a team leader has to think about how he reacts in front of his teammates when things don’t go his way. “You gotta be kind of a glue guy, and that’s what he is for us,” Niblett said.
Hoover returns plenty of weapons in the passing game that Farquhar can take advantage of, including receivers such as Cortez Hall, Shedrick Jackson, Kam Ford and Jimmy Turner.
“We’ve got an opportunity to be pretty explosive out on the perimeter,” Niblett said. “Still gelling up front as far as the o-line goes, but I did feel pretty good about the way they played in the first scrimmage that we had.”
Most of the offensive line will consist of players who didn’t start last season. However, it will be anchored by two returning starters, Mike Maye at left tackle and Austin Carter at center.
When Hoover needs Farquhar to hand the ball off, he will have plenty of options, as Niblett expects running backs C.J. Sturdivant, Vonte’ Brackett, R.J. Randle and Corwin Russell to see the field this season. Niblett said Randle could become an x-factor for the team, due to his ability to also line up as a fullback or as a receiver. But there doesn’t seem to be any doubt about who the starting back will be when the season starts.
Sturdivant, at about 5 feet, 11 inches and 210 pounds, is “a big back, power back, runs the ball hard, but he’s really got good speed,” Niblett said. “He understands the offense, understands protections, has got good hands so he can catch the football.”
Hoover’s real edge could be its special teams play. With Barret Pickering handling kicking duties, Sturdivant and the rest of the offense doesn’t need to find the end zone, or even get near it, for the Buccaneers to come away with points.
Niblett called Pickering an “unbelievable kicker.”
“He’s a guy that hits 50 yarders with eight yards to spare,” Niblett said. “We’ve got to be really good on special teams, because I think you win and lose games there, but we want to win them, we don’t talk about losing anymore.”
If Hoover is out of field goal range, Pickering will still run out on the field on fourth down to handle punting duties. Then it’s up to the defense.
For Niblett, any conversation about his defense has to start with his middle linebacker.
“Having Kholbe (Coleman-Abrams) back and having K.J. (Vault) back is huge, too, at the second level,” Niblett said. “Kholbe’s the quarterback of our defense. … He’s an unbelievable kid, he’s a leader of our team and he understands what we expect both on the field and off so he’s able to display that, he’s able to live it.”
Safeties Ben Abercrombie and Jayden Jordan will be tasked with backing up the linebackers ahead of them. Cornerback Will Singleton is the only other member of the secondary to lock down a starting position at this point.
R.J. Nelson, Tre Copeland and Chase Brown are all competing to start at the remaining corner position. Niblett said Singleton will likely become a valuable resource for whoever joins him in the secondary.
“Will Singleton’s a really, really good athlete. He’s a long, rangy guy. He’s got long arms, so he presses guys up; he can keep his distance. But also, at the same time, he’s a strong physical kid,” he said. “Will’s got that savvy about him that makes him a good corner.”
Khamari Brown, Christon Taylor, and Ricky Palao all return up front, but plenty of other defensive linemen will see the field. Niblett said he expects nine or 10 players to rotate in on a regular basis throughout the season.
But just because they step on the field doesn’t mean they will be there long. Game reps will be determined based off production in practice each week.
That sort of competition is crucial for Hoover’s defensive line. Niblett wants to see every player on his team approach practice as if they are fighting for their jobs.
“Around here we always want it to be about competition,” he said. “Just because you start week one doesn’t mean you’re going to start week two.”
The pressure of daily competition hasn’t prevented Niblett’s team from enjoying itself in the offseason. But when it was time to work, the team got serious and finished one of the best summer sessions Niblett has seen during his tenure at Hoover.
“These kids know what they want to do,” Niblett said. “They know where they want to be playing in December.”