If the 2020 high school football season could be compared to a dinner party, it was one with massive delays between courses.
“We had two stretches where we’d play a month and then we’d sit a month, and then we’d have a go,” Crossett Coach Shawn Jackson said. “It was like cooking your dinner and then somebody knocked on the door, and then you ate it two months later.”
It was the kind of season that led to frustrating results. Crossett played eight games, three of which were conference matches, and beat Monticello in the playoffs. The Eagles were undefeated in conference, but because of rules instituted to try to make sense of a season that was constantly interrupted, the team didn’t take the conference title. This year, it’s a little simpler.
“This year, because of the rules, you are going to forfeit if you have to cancel a game,” Jackson said.
Coming into the 2021 season, the Eagles will be looking to replace some key players. Nick Goodwin, Key Smith, Dwight Ashford and Desmond Harris were all standout players who graduated off of the D-line.
“The spots we lost were key, key, key,” Jackson said.
Pairing the number of open spots with the possibility of COVID interruptions, which means one never knows who might be in or out any given week, a lot of players are getting practice in different positions and are getting exposure to playing in spots they might not have chosen on their own. Younger players have been testing their mettle during workouts because they might get called to play.
“The thing about the school district here is we follow the rules to the letter of the law,” Jackson said. “From the COVID standpoint, you are going to have some here and some not. We have been just throwing people on the kickoff and the kickoff return just to get ready because you never know who you are going to have.
“Tackling is going to be something that is suffering because of this. We don’t do a lot of full live tackling just because of COVID and injuries. Instead of having three (players in one position) you might have one. You have the other two out there and you are just constantly rolling people in.”
Being prepared means never quitting.
“We have been going nonstop, full swing since May doing something. We have lifted weights year-round; we have a full off-season.”
While injuries are always something to watch for, this year the health concern is as much focused on keeping student athletes from being exposed to the coronavirus and subsequently quarantined. Forced quarantines were what caused the uneven 2020 season, pulling athletes off the field, away from the bench and behind the closed doors of their homes for 10 days at a time. The most notable quarantine during the 2020 season came when the team was an hour away from playing the Eagles’ homecoming game, a game they weren’t able to play because of how many players were notified that they had been exposed to the virus.
“We have got good players and good coaches, but it is all going to boil down to COVID rules,” Jackson said. “If we manage COVID, we are going to be as good as anybody, but if we have a bunch of interruptions, it will be like last year.”
Jackson said he and his coaching staff have a commitment to students safety. That means that they may not go as hard as they can in practice so that they can avoid any potential injury before the season starts.
“COVID and injuries, you have those two things you have to manage constantly,” Jackson said. “You can’t be as physical as you want to be because the most important thing for us right now is to stay healthy. You have COVID, injuries, even strep and the flu this year.”
Keeping healthy carries an additional weight for some athletes who might be good enough to be scouted by a college.
“We have kids who don’t have college offers because they only played eight games last year,” Jackson said.
“They are going to have to play a lot of games. I want them to get a free education, and that is not going to happen if they don’t play.”
The coach said that though the COVID regulations offer challenges that coaches haven’t faced before, the coaches are going to do what they have to in order to keep students healthy and playing.
“We wear masks and stay six feet apart and social distance, and if something were to happen we would find out who is vaccinated or not,” he said. “I tell all the players and coaches it is between the players, their parents and their doctors doing that; that is their decision. It is hard enough being a coach without being a doctor.
“But these kids have worked their whole life to be football players, and if it takes wearing masks and being vaccinated in order to enjoy their senior year, in order for it to pay dividends, I will wear a mask, I will get vaccinated to make it work.”
And the Eagles are making it work.
“On the offensive line we have good players, big strong kids,” Jackson said. “It’s just reps and continuity.”
One of the players who the coach said should have an impact on the offensive line this year is Levi Taylor, who is playing his first year as a center.
“If Levi has a good year for us, it will be good,” Jackson said. “Whatever kind of year Levi has will be the year we have. We have great skill players, not good, but great.”
On the defensive line, Dylan Coody will be returning after an all-conference season in 2020.
“He is quick off the ball and physical, physical, physical; he just has to play his technique, and if his technique gets better, the sky is the limit.”
Tyrique Jones will return as quarterback after an all-state run last year, bringing the ability to throw a 65-yard pass and make a 50-yard punt.
“He had a big year last year; he was fast,” Jackson said. “He is a great athlete and his greatest strength and greatest weakness is how competitive he is. I have never coached a better kid athletically or competitively. I would go to war with Tyrique.”
Jackson said fans should also keep an eye on linebacker Denzel Watkins — “he is the best linebacker in the conference, in this part of the world” — and Jackson Moore — “He is the same thing for us on offense.”
The pair, the coach said, “are just coaches’ dreams.”
Dewayne Ashford also had a great camp at wide receiver, Jackson said.
Rounding out the coaching staff for the 2021 season are Vincent Newton as the defensive coordinator; Josh Cook as the assistant defensive coordinator and outside linebackers’ coach; Chuck Rawlings as the linebacker coach and special teams coordinator; Kolby Stewart as the offensive line coach; Derek Rodgers as the quarterback coach; Rodney Lawson as the running back coach; Austin Canaday as the receivers coach and freshman head coach; and Grant Collins as the wide receivers’ coach and video coordinator.