McEachern had spring practice with a new head coach for the first time since 2007 and Franklin Stephens took full advantage of the change in culture.
“One of the things I noticed was the guys’ attitude and just wanting to get better,” Stephens said. “People say ‘kids are kids’ but I think kids in different areas are a little bit different. One of the things you’ve got up here is college coaches appearing at practices. We’re in the weight room and there’s guys constantly coming through. So if you want those opportunities, you better go out and take advantage of them. I think that’s one of the exciting things about spring practice.”
The players Stephens alluded to are scattered around the field and the Indians are eager to put a disenchanting 2018 behind them.
The streak of 10 win seasons for McEachern ended at five, falling to the hands of Colquitt County in the second round of the state playoffs. Adding insult to injury, the Indians lost to rival Marietta for the first time since 2007.
Now, with starting quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson having a full year of varsity football under his belt and a dynamic senior running back in Jordan Simmons, Stephens’ squad is hopeful of reaching the state championship for the first time since 1998.
“It was a race to get as much done that you would normally be able to get done in the winter time—it was a short time,” said Stephens, who was hired in March. “You need to get in there and start installing your basic offense, defense and special teams.”
Del Rio-Wilson completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,150 yards in 2018. In the 12 games he started, Del Rio-Wilson threw for 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Behind Del Rio-Wilson is Simmons who is replacing University of Pittsburgh signee Paris Brown at running back.
“Our focus this spring since I got here has been to complete the staff, get in there to work strength and agility and then start working in the playbooks,” Stephens said. “We needed to find out about kids. Hearing about them and seeing them are totally different. I really wanted to see what young kids were going to surprise us.”
Simmons wasn’t as much a surprise, but a seasoned veteran who returns for his senior year with more than a dozen Division I offers following an 1,082 yard, 19 touchdown season. He was also the Indians’ leading receiver with 391 yards and two touchdowns.
The challenge of learning a whole team’s strengths and weaknesses was made easier for Stephens with the tag team of rising seniors Jamari Bellamy and Georgia commit Jamil Burroughs on defense, who are tasked with the job of replacing their top three tacklers.
“When you go into spring with kids you know, there’s going to be some type of expectations,” Stephens said. “Our guys and our families have to decide how important this football program is to you because there are going to be some sacrifices, there are going to be some decisions.”
Bellamy and Burroughs will provide Stephens with a security and commitment in his first year with the team as the two combined for 116 tackles, 10 sacks and three interceptions in 2018.