STEVENSON, Ala. — One thing is certain: Whatever happened on the field last season was not North Jackson football.
For only the second time in the program's 25 years of existence, the Chiefs finished with a losing record (2-8), and they struggled just to claim those two wins. They needed a late score to avoid an embarrassing loss to Butler, which has Alabama's longest losing streak.
Just as it did the last time it suffered a losing season, the school hired Mark Rose to fix the mess.
"The first thing I told the kids when I got back is they can expect two things to happen: 'We're going to work our tails off like never before, and we're going to win games,'" said Rose, who compiled an 85-15 record during his first North Jackson stint, including 54-2 in the region. "There was an immediate trust because of what we had done when I was here before.
"I said all this hard work wouldn't be worth it if we didn't win, but we're going to win because we've got weapons at every offensive position, so there's no excuse. It's been a blessing for me to come back here. It's the best place to coach in the whole state of Alabama, and that's not a shot at any other school I've worked for. It's just to say how much I enjoy my time there. It's always been like home for me."
Even though five starters return on both sides of the ball, several players have been shifted to new positions by Rose and the new staff. It's been six years since he last coached the Chiefs, but the spring scrimmage looked very similar to his previous time here. Against Class 6A Boaz, North Jackson allowed just 24 total yards, including 18 on 18 first-half snaps, while scoring six touchdowns on its seven possessions.
It still will be a young team on the field, with a core defense of six juniors, three sophomores and two seniors. That side is led by junior middle linebacker Brett Barbee and senior strong safety C.J. Cobb. Senior Tyler Thomas (6-1, 215) and junior Chase Darnell (6-1, 185), who had 6.5 sacks last year, are ideal rush ends as the Chiefs make the switch back to a 4-3 alignment, and senior running back and linebacker Octavius Matthews (6-1, 180) is expected to be a difference maker on both sides.
"These kids are the best I've ever been around," said new defensive coordinator Jason Bates, who coached at Talladega High last year and brings an attack-first mindset to that side of the ball. "Their mental toughness is unbelievable. You don't have to put them on a weight scale because they're measured by heart and toughness.
"We can't dictate when the ball is snapped, but after that it's like full-court pressure. They were embarrassed and hurt by what happened last year, and they want to make everybody forget about that and get that respect back. People are going to see a completely different mindset and attitude here."
It was cross-county rival Scottsboro that underwent an attitude adjustment last year under first-year head coach Patrick Nix. The Wildcats went 7-4 and return nine defensive and six offensive starters, including senior quarterback Justin Whitehead. But three younger players could help Scottsboro take the next step and advance in the playoffs. Sophomore receiver Dylan McQueen and sophomore running back DeKarlos Billingsley both have big-play potential, as does junior receiver Malik Talley (6-3, 185), who hadn't played football since middle school but is so athletic that Nix considers him to be an FBS-level prospect already.
Similar to North Jackson, Ider is looking to bounce back after a dismal 2013 season. The Hornets finished 1-9 but return six starters to both sides, including running back and middle linebacker Jarett Palmer and two-way lineman Justin Bearden (6-4, 285). There are only six seniors on the roster, and Ider's success likely will depend on how quickly junior Devin Dobbins matures at quarterback.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...