Football never ends while the hard work and preparation occurs during the off season.
For the Avon Park Red Devils, several years of disappointment are slowly and steadily being turned around by head coach Wade Jackson and his coaching staff.
A noticeable difference that can be seen is the number of players that have shown up for practice in preparation for the spring football game.
“Last year we started with 24, ended up with 21.” Jackson said. “This year we have 52 out here. What I see is our off season weight program and everything we have done to make ourselves better is starting to come into fruition and you can see that already in the first week.”
Just how has Jackson created this turn around? According to Jackson, it is all about changing attitudes within the program.
“That is what we have done,” said Jackson. “The kids want to be here, the coaches love on them and treat them right. They hold them accountable and work them hard, but they feel a part of something.
That is what has been the key. We are head and shoulders above where we were last year at this time.”
In speaking to Jackson, he uses the word excited in describing himself about the upcoming football season. In reality, he does not even have to tell you he is excited, you can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice when he speaks about his team.
He notes that a lot of their junior varsity team will be on the varsity team as sophomores this year. A young team, he commented, that will have a lot of athletes and will have some speed.
“When you have some players like that, that do not mind coming into the weight room and all have great attitudes, it is building the program, it makes you get excited,” Jackson added.
With the increase in the number of kids that are out in practice, it creates an atmosphere of competition that the Red Devils have not had the luxury of having over the past few years. Back-up players are pushing the starters which allows the coaches to get a better look at the players and the ability to run full wide-open drills.
“We are looking forward to the next three weeks and see what that brings.” Jackson said.
One of these most interesting competitions will be at the quarterback position.
“Three players are in the mix,” added Jackson. “All bring something different to the table. All of them, I think, can run the offense. I feel comfortable putting any of them at quarterback, just from what I have seen in the first three days.”
Another noticeable difference is that they have more size on the front lines. Jackson attributes that to the players dedication to the off season weight- lifting program and many of the kids are the same ones that played last year.
Jackson noted that for the spring game they are going to put in the basic offense and defense and see if there is an improvement in the fundamentals, especially in the area of tackling and blocking.
“To be honest,” Jackson said, “that was probably one of the worst tackling teams that I have ever been a part of. We have to get better. We had some injuries and other things, it was not necessarily the kids, it was just a lot of things that went against us.”
“I just want to see if we can block and tackle better,” Jackson said, “then move on from there. I think we are getting there.”
With the loss of Alfred Brown, Jackson responded that they have some athletic kids and that they are going to get them in a position to make plays, whether it is the short passing game, running game or whatever.
“Alfred (Brown) was a big dual threat and could take it to the house at any time,” said Jackson, “but we want to become more stable in our offense in running the ball or throwing the ball. Would it be great to have Alfred back, absolutely, but I have great confidence in the guys we got to put our offense out there to do the things we want to accomplish.”
With less than a week of practice in the books, one word can be used to describe the atmosphere that has not been used in a couple of years. That word would be energized. The coaches are excited, the players are enthusiastic and that should translate to arousing the fans of Red Devil football.
The spring football game is set for May 23. Avon Park will take on St. Pete Catholic at 7 p.m. in St. Petersburg.
An intrasquad game will be held at 6 p.m. May 16 at Joe Franza Stadium in Avon Park.