Questions becoming answers as Tigers ready for spring game

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When Adairsville head football coach Eric Bishop was compiling statistics for the December banquet after the 2017 season, he realized just how many of his top contributors were going to graduate.

He tallied the tackle totals and saw that his top two in that category, Dakota Hughes and Bryce Burgess, were both seniors. Then he looked at offensive numbers, and it dawned on him that leading rusher Christian Steele and the team's top three receivers, Burgess, Cody Henderson and Ethan Belcher, were all hanging up the green and gold as well. Then he looked along the lines and realized most of his top players in the trenches were moving on too.

However, while Bishop won't say all his anxiety as to how to fill those key roles is gone, he does feel much better now that spring practices have concluded.

"They've had a great offseason in the weight room," Bishop said. "What you really hope is, you get to this point in spring practice where you're beginning to start to answer a lot of those questions you had last December and January. Our coaches are excited about what we're getting out of the kids and the way they're picking up things."

Bishop hopes Friday night's scrimmage against Armuchee at 7 p.m. in Tiger Valley will provide additional comfort as to how the Tigers will look come fall.

He said it will be a controlled scrimmage as far as the special teams go, with no kickoffs, but mostly live action from first to third down.

"They're very excited. As you would hope, we had our best practice of the spring Wednesday," Bishop said. "I just think, for our kids and our whole athletic mentality, not just football, spring practice really fits us well. It's kind of springboard into your summer program. Everybody's excited. They'll get a jersey [Thursday] and they'll wear it to school Friday."

Some of the players to look out for Friday are ones that most Adairsville fans might not have seen much from in previous years.

And then, there's already established players like Mason Boswell. The do-everything and excel-at-everything Tiger looks as good as ever entering his senior year, according to Bishop.

Still, with Boswell playing offense, defense and maybe special teams, a quarterback has emerged to help give Boswell a breather. His name is Derrick Simmons, and the rising junior has the coaching staff excited over his potential.

"Derrick Simmons is a guy I think y'all will be very, very impressed with. Quarterback, slotback and cornerback. He and Mason will kind of split time at quarterback," Bishop said. "He's kind of the same mold as Mason, just not quite as heavy. He's probably 175, 180, while as Mason is 205, 210. You're going to see Mason at the pistol back some Friday and obviously playing defense some as well."

Three returning starters on defense will lead the Tigers — Savaun Henderson in the secondary, Nic Jackson at linebacker and Chandler Shankles on the defensive line. Bishop says all of them have had strong springs.

One player stepping up to join the group is Malachi Gardner, and the 6-foot-1 linebacker and wide receiver is in line to be a breakout player for the Tigers.

Also impressing in the "Cody Henderson mold" at wide receiver, according to Bishop, is Denarius Johnson, whose 6-foot-3 stature and basketball background allows him to make the contested catches like Henderson did last year.

The offensive line also has come together better than expected, with Josh Brown stepping up to be the player the coaches hoped he would become someday. 

There are still questions along the defensive front-7, though, and the linemen and linebackers may look a little different this year with the Tigers making some schematic changes.

"We're going to be more multiple," Bishop said. "We kind of sat there in the 3-5 the first year, and the second year, we went 4-2-5. Then we were more of 3-4. I think, if you have to say what we're based out of on defense, it's probably going to be more the 3-4. But we're definitely going to be more multiple on defense than ever before.

"The defense has to kind of be the amoeba team in that they have to constantly change based on who you're opponents are and who you're getting, what kind of offenses are we going to be going against. … You have Calhoun, who can go spread on you and throw it all around, or if they need to, can run two tight ends and an H-back and be in power formation very quickly. It's really trying to be able to match up with the opponents that we're going to see in that coming season."

Two players Bishop has singled out, Zach Ogle and Drew Wilson, will be contributors at linebackers in that defense. Bishop specifically cited the offseason work of those two as embodying the kind of winter and spring workout habits that have become part of the culture in Tiger Valley.

"Those two kids are the ultimate team players, show up every day, do as they're coached to do, never a distraction. … It's funny how those guys who always do that somehow always end up making big plays for us," Bishop said. "It really to me, comes back to two things: The fact that we stress to have multi-sport athletes, and I think a lot of it can be attributed to the way we lift weights. Football, baseball, basketball and wrestling guys, they all lift together. They all lift all summer long. That right there has built that mentality and culture."

That culture that has been created is why Bishop is feeling better about the outlook during spring practice than he did in January.

"We're all in this together," he said. "This is what we do at Adairsville. This is what we're about. This is what makes us successful and the kids have bought in."