Friday, August 08, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Red Devils still learning to play hard 48 minutes

Leader sports editor

Jacksonville football coach Barry Hickingbotham believes he and his staff are getting closer to finding where players are going to fit in, but isn’t ready to start naming names for starting positions after one week of preseason practice.

“We’re still a couple weeks out from anything like that,” said Hickingbotham. “I’ve preached this all along and people are probably getting sick of me saying it, but we’re still focusing on going hard 100 percent of the time. We’re practicing two hours and 30 minutes to two hours and 45 minutes. We’re thinking that’s about how long it takes to play a 48-minute game, and we’re wanting them to go hard the whole time. We’re making practices as game like as we can. We’re keeping the pace up and we’re focusing on playing hard the whole time.”

There are a handful of positions that are sealed up enough for Hickingbotham to mention, but they’re obvious ones. Three-year starters Lamont Gause and Justin Abbott will be in the starting rotations at tailback and linebacker respectively. Offensive linemen Terry Brown and Keith Purvall return as starters from last year.

“I think Brown is the only linemen that started every game last year,” Hickingbotham said. “Purvall played quite a bit and started every game later in the season. Those two are looking good for us on the line and we’re leaning on them quite a bit.
 Of course our two three-year starters, we’re relying heavily on those guys. We need those two to step up and be leaders. We’re still looking for that guy who’s going to provide that example of going hard all the time. Picking teammates up, being accountable, holding people accountable, finishing every sprint hard – just being that example for the less experienced guys to look to.”

Besides those four, Hickingbotham is adamant that everything else is up in the air. “Truthfully, we’re looking at week four as our goal for having all that lined out,” Hickingbotham said. “You hate to say starting 0-3 is OK, but really it is for this group. We’re going to play alot of people in those first three games, and in a lot of places. We feel like week four, the page turns and you got to be ready. That’s when it counts and everything resets. Of course we’re going out there to win each and every game, but the goal for finding our identity and getting everybody where they can help the most is that first conference game.”

Hickingbotham has long-term plans that go well beyond week four of this season. Some further changes to the practice atmosphere are upcoming, and there’s even a program in the works to get local kids interested in the Red Devils at an early age.

“We’re going get some players together and go visit these elementary schools,” Hickingbotham said. “We’re going to give every elementary school student in Jacksonville a red T-shirt that says Red Devil Pride 2014, and if they wear that shirt to any Jacksonville home game, they get in free. We want the kids to get more involved at a young age. We want those kids to understand that they’re our future and to take pride in and be excited about Jacksonville.”

Hickingbotham estimates that he’ll give away about 1,700 shirts, and hopes for about 50 percent of those students to show up at home games.

There could also be changes to the practice atmosphere. Hickingbotham is considering practicing to music, and says he’s not worried it will have a negative impact on concentration.

“I’m not worried about that,” Hickingbotham said. “There’s noise during a game. I want them to learn to work hard, but I want it to be an enjoyable experience. They can dance. Heck I might even dance. They already know the difference with me. There’s a time to have fun and there’s a time to get down to business. These kids understand those two things.”

And Hickingbotham adds that it’s not just players that are learning new things.

“As coaches we’re working on practicing perfect,” Hickingbotham said. “If we shoot for absolute perfection, if we fall a little short of that goal, we’ve still had a pretty good day.”