Tuesday, August 04, 2015

TOP STORY >> Red Devils’ retreat teaches team unity

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville football Red Devils spent their last week before preseason practice officially begins at their second-annual team retreat to Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge.

The team spent a good portion of its time at the retreat practicing, but the main goal was to bond as a team and work on teamwork and unity.

Coaches confiscate cell phones as the players exit the bus upon arrival for the three-day event. Dorm rooms are assigned by position, but coaches also take care to assign rooms strategically.

“We didn’t put people in a room with their best friends,” said Jacksonville coach Barry Hickingbotham. “We tried to mix it up and give these kids a chance to spend some time with somebody they haven’t necessarily spent a lot of time with. And when you see that pay off, that’s when you know you’ve got something good going. You see kids eating and talking with kids you’ve never seen together before. That’s the kind of thing this is all about. We want to build that bond and build these relationships.”

Hickingbotham recalls one specific incident during room checks that he felt exemplified their goals.

“I opened up a door and it was like a clown car at the circus,” Hickingbotham said. “You couldn’t fit anybody else in there. Just 14 or 15 of them in that little dorm room, and just sitting there talking. All 15 of them engaged with each other instead of sitting there ignoring each other looking at their cell phone.”

Practices consisted of some 7-on-7 competitions and some short workouts. Coaches worked a lot on fundamentals like catching and tucking. Linemen worked on blocking and tackling technique.

Coaches also put together several non-athletic competitions in which players were divided into teams. And just as last year, there was also a talent show. According to players, the impersonations of coaches were the favorite talent displays.

Tim Hammond’s impression of new coach Bobby Gentry was a particular favorite.

One thing that came out of the first camp was the emergence of a new player or two that suddenly shined in the different environment. This year didn’t lack impressive performances either.

Coaches all singled out senior Damien Smith as having an exceptional camp. Other coaches who worked with certain positions mentioned Stevie Eskridge and Jonathan Hall.

Eskridge himself was impressed with a newcomer.

“Danny Smith really surprised me,” Eskridge said of the sophomore running back transfer from Vilonia. “To me, he stood out and really showed what he’s capable of and what he’s going to bring to the team. He looked really strong.”

Eskridge is a player coaches have bragged on in the past for being the type of player who will do whatever is asked. He will be relied upon as a multi-position player this year, and he fully understands the goals of the retreat, having now been through two of them.

“We do come together as a team,” Eskridge said. “We work on making that bond. It’s something we do intentionally, so we know later in the season that we can depend on each other.”

Malcolm Crudup, a senior who missed the entire conference season last year after suffering a deep thigh bruise and a torn meniscus, is also one of the players coaches are excited about. He also zeroed in quickly on what the camp was meant to accomplish.

“I think it went even better than last year,” said Crudup. “I feel like we became more of having a sense of brotherhood than anything else. If we can build that sense of brotherhood and family, then we can accomplish more on Friday nights than we could as a bunch of individuals.”

Some of the excitement from the retreat diminished Monday, when players were supposed to report to the first official day of preseason practices. Of the 68 that participated in summer workouts, 18 didn’t show on Monday.

“We’ve got 50 out here and that’s a little disappointing,” Hickingbotham said. “Several guys told me and we knew about it and we know where they are. I can handle that. But some of them we don’t have a clue. We were expecting them to be here. I got a problem with that.

“We’re going to hold people accountable around here. About 50 is probably about where we’re going to wind up. We’ll see for sure when people start trickling in here and find out what it’s going to take to be held accountable.”