Not even a number of new assistants and a first-year head coach altered John Tyler's winning approach on the football field.
With head coach Ricklan Holmes calling the shots, the JT offense remained prolific, the defense improved considerably, and the special teams turned into another weapon as the Lions qualified for the state quarterfinals a school-record fourth consecutive season.
Holmes moved from secondary coach to the main office after getting hired in May to replace Dereck Rush, who led JT to 12 playoff wins and three district titles his last four years on the job before taking the top position at Conroe Oak Ridge.
"It starts with organization, coming from the top and having everything together," said Holmes, who received an endorsement from the departing Rush. "The biggest adjustment has been letting the coaches coach. I'm more of a manager now, and understanding it's my job to be organized and have everybody going in the right direction."
Along with Holmes, a 1998 JT graduate, five holdovers stayed from last year's 11-4 squad, while soccer coach William Arangurnen joined the staff to work with the kickers.
Holmes hired nine new faces during the summer, meaning the returning players — 17 regulars — started mostly fresh once fall practices kicked off. Thanks to a veteran-savvy team, and a system largely the same since last year, JT finds itself competing for a state championship once again.
"The work we did during the summer wasn't lengthy, but it was quality," Holmes said. "A lot of coaches came from defensive backgrounds and offensive backgrounds that were (similar) to what we did. All we had to do was change terminology and get on the same page."
Holmes believes three key moves he made, leaving one holdover as a coordinator, and putting the other two units under the guidance of old staffers, eased the transition. Holmes promoted Antoine Bush, a 2005 JT graduate and former North Texas standout, to the position of assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.
The Lions averaged 41.8 points and 427.4 yards over the first 13 games, and showed impressive balance with 35 rushing and 36 passing TDs. Other offensive assistants include Will Smith (offensive line), Quinton Jones (running backs), Heath Grant (wide receivers), Justin Powell (offensive line, assistant) and Paul Bacorta (wide receivers, assistant).
The school's longest-tenured assistant, defensive coordinator Barry Anderson, helped JT make noted changes since last year when the Lions allowed 28 points per game while falling 51-20 to Waco Midway in the state semifinals. Under Anderson, in his 11th season at the school, the Lions finished with three takeaways and allowed only one second TD in a regional win after Frisco pounded JT repeatedly in a keep away style first half.
JT transformed into a force starting with a 21-0 shutout over Robert E. Lee. The Lions allowed an averaged of 16.2 points through regionals and forced 38 turnovers in the process. The defensive staff also features Jayme Moore (defensive backs), Torey Elder (defensive ends), Chuck Isaac (defensive line), JT graduate Gerald Norman (defensive backs, assistant) and Travis Eckels.
Moore, a JT kicker during the late 1990s, oversees a thriving special teams unit. JT kicker Porforio Benitez booted all six point-after attempts last week, improving to 74 for 75 on the season, and made his sixth field goal of the year. Nacogdoches blocked a Benitez' PAT, although JT still scored on the play when holder Greg Ward picked up the ball and scored on a two-point run. Noe Diaz averages 39.9 yards per punt, with 29 touchbacks for the kickoff units.
"By keeping the three coordinators that I kept - Bush, Anderson and Moore - they know what I want to do because we've been doing this together so long," said Holmes, who joined the JT staff in 2007. "What they do is transpire (the information) to the new coaches. By them having the direction coming from those three, it makes it look easy, but all it is is following instructions. My coordinators and coaches are doing a great job doing what I want them to do."
Despite the change up top, Holmes never ducked the state championship expectations for one of the most star-studded teams in the history of one of the state's most tradition-rich programs.
"It comes from within us, and starts with the coaches and trickles to the players," Holmes said of the ring-sized expectations. "We all believe in each other. We understand what we need to do and how we need to do it, and that's what we do week-in, week-out."
With the Lions two wins from reaching the ultimate destination, Holmes tries his best to keep normalcy, while at the same time reminding the players a loss now ends their dreams.
"We pretty much keep it the same," Holmes said regarding game-preparation. "But at the same time you have to let them know the importance of every practice, every game and every down. It's not like the regular season; you don't have another game that's promised to you."
LIONS' TALES: Presale tickets for the Class 4A Division I state quarterfinal between John Tyler and Frisco Centennial cost $5 for students and $7 for adults, with general admission tickets at the gate $10. Tickets will be sold at the TISD athletic office (807 W. Glenwood) on Wednesday and Thursday from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. and on Friday from 8 a.m. - noon. Tickets can also be purchased at T&T Lewis (903 W. Martin Luther King Jr., Blvd.) during regular business hours.