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Football: First-year football coaches adjust to loss of practice time
West Forsyth
Forsyth County will have three new head football coaches entering the 2020 season. With the loss of spring practice, those coaches must be resourceful in areas such as installing playbooks and evaluating players. - photo by David Roberts

Tommy Watson already had his work cut out for him.

Hired in February, Lambert’s first-year head coach was tasked with turning around a football program that didn’t win a game last season and has gone three years without a winning record.

Then came the coronavirus, and with it the announcement from the Georgia High School Athletic Association that spring football was canceled.

Watson’s time for player evaluations and in-person instruction was whisked away, leading him to find more innovative ways to coach his team.

So, like many coaches across the country — and world — Watson and his staff have taken to online instruction, holding virtual meetings and implementing the team’s playbook over Hudl.

“So the kids are learning the plays and the coaches are teaching the plays. It’s not like being out there on the grass, don’t get me wrong,” Watson said. “But something’s better than nothing.”

Watson is one of three new head football coaches, joining Dave Svehla at West Forsyth and Mike Palmieri at Denmark. 

The Wolverines might enter the 2020 season with a new head coach, but the assistants on defense will be identical to last year.

Svehla retained defensive coordinator Bill Ballard, as well as Chad Wheeler, Robert Tjong and Mitchell Posey.

“Those guys are unchanged from last year. That’s an advantage that we have,” Svehla said. “There’s always tweaks from year to year; you just do things a little bit differently. But the kids who have been in the program have been around the defense, they understand the terminology, they understand the responsibility, they understand the checks and the calls. So there is an advantage to not having to reteach both sides of the ball. It’s the offensive side of the ball that’s a real challenge, because the terminology is just completely different than what they’re used to.”

West Forsyth’s defense has earned a reputation for being a stout unit over the past few years, and the group should be a strength yet again this year.

West Forsyth figures to return its entire defensive secondary from a season ago, though Svehla said he and his coaching staff are still figuring out the best positions for the players.

Svehla mentioned the possibility of some of last year’s defensive players helping out the offense, and some of last year’s offensive players suiting up on defense.

With a new offensive system in place, one of the difficulties is getting coaches and players on the same page.

“Well, it certainly is a challenge,” Svehla said. “We’ve got four new coaches on the offensive side of the ball, so we’re trying to teach coaches things rather than coach trying to teach players things. There’s certainly more efficient ways to do it than online, but the situation is what it is, and I think our coaches have done a great job of communicating with their kids at least once a week.”

Watson is in a similar situation with a Lambert offense that had its struggles last year. 

On top of that, the Longhorns must break in a new quarterback after Peyton Rich graduated.

“Quarterback is probably the most important position on the field, and we’re not able to do early morning quarterback drills and things like that,” Watson said. “But I have a good quarterbacks coach that worked with at Lowndes that was a college quarterback and he’s been working virtually online for two months now. He started this before we ever got sent home from school by the coronavirus.”

Lambert’s quarterback coach is Jacob Chesser, a 2012 graduate of Sprayberry who played college football at Valdosta State University.

Lambert’s quarterback job figures to remain open, at least until the players can get on the field.

Watson mentioned senior quarterback Logan Wire, junior Ashton Smith and sophomore James Tyre among candidates to replace Rich.

“There’s no way to actually see how they throw the ball, or if they can throw the ball, or if they can read a defense,” Watson said. “The thing is now, we’re just trying to get them all to understand the playbook and the thinking behind each play. That way, when we do get to hit the ground running, hopefully the vast majority of the teaching curve will be out of the way. Then it’ll just be putting the ball in their hands and seeing what can happen.”

For Palmieri, Denmark’s offense figures to be just as strong in 2020, headlined by four-star quarterback Aaron McLaughlin, who threw for nearly 2,000 yards and accounted for 26 touchdowns last year.

Despite losing wide receiver Ze’Vian Capers to Auburn and Jordan Brunson to Virginia Tech, the Danes return plenty of firepower on the offensive side of the ball.

Six-foot-6 offensive tackle Dayne Shor has seen his recruiting take off this month, earning offers from Oregon, Texas A&M, Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State, Florida, Florida State, Georgia and Kentucky — all in April.

Running back Zach Ogbogu picked up an offer from Army earlier this month, while wide receiver Teddy Davenport figures to see his share of looks this season.

While coaches can watch film of players from the past couple of seasons, a lot can change in a year at the high school level, and first-year coaches likely won’t know what their team will look like in the fall until they can get the team on the practice field.

Until then, they’ll do the best they can with what they’ve got.

“We study the game films last year, from varsity to the JV to the ninth grade, and we’ve got an idea about each kid,” Watson said. “But as you know, a year is a big difference in somebody’s life. We just aren’t sure what we’ve really got. We think we know what we’ve got, but we really don’t know at the end of the day. So that’s the biggest thing we’re struggling with, but we’re trying to make the best out of the situation, for sure.”