John Tyler paced itself for a long run on the first day of football practice.
To end the first fall workout of the year, John Tyler players sprinted 40 yards a total of 16 times. The sprints signified the number of games JT, a consensus top-three team in Class 4A, expects to play in 2012.
“You’ve got 16 games to play (to win state) so that’s why it’s 16 sprints,” first-year JT head coach Ricklan Holmes said. “We do it to make sure we can finish games and be in it from start to end. It’s not just about 16 sprints, but 16 perfect sprints and giving your all each time.”
The Lions lasted until the 15th game last year and the 14th game the two years before. One key number — 17 returning starters — makes the Lions’ goals, to be the last team standing, a realistic one.
More than 150 varsity and junior varsity players showed up on the first day. Holmes estimated 80 percent in ideal condition to start off, thanks in part to 7-on-7 competition and summer speed and power camp.
The number of sprints decreases each week during the season, with the goal to be good enough to play up to the final week, and in good enough condition to run only a single sprint.
“These 16 40s sprints we’re running is getting us ready for December so we can be in tip-top shape,” said JT senior defensive tackle Deandre Miller. “We’re going to play to the best of our ability whether we’re tired or not.”
With the team huddled in a circle after field work, Holmes challenged the Lions to keep the same enthusiasm from the beginning of the practice for the duration, and later a full 48 minutes of game action.
After three hours on the field in T-shirts and shorts, JT breaked briefly before lifting weights. The Lions get to wear pads for the first time Friday. One week later JT plays its lone tune-up in a scrimmage at Longview, then begins the regular season seven days afterward at home on Aug. 31 versus Lufkin in the Trinity Mother Frances Classic.
JT’s skill players rarely skipped a beat on Monday after playing for the 7-on-7 team, which captured a national championship, a state consolation title and another invitational event during the summer.
Key JT skill players back on offense from year include QB Greg Ward (3,729 yards, 34 TDs passing; 1,271 yards, 20 TDs rushing), WR Fred Ross (1,320 yards, 15 TDs receiving; 439 yards, 6 TDs rushing); WR Darion Flowers (1,052 total yards, 10 TDs), RB DeQuante Woods (576 total yards, 5 TDs), RB Reggie Gipson (536 total yards, 5 TDs), WR Justice Liggins (375 total yards, 3TDs), RB Rodrick Smith (219 total yards, 2TDs) and ATH Tyus Bowser (5 rushing TDs).
While the skill players (non-linemen) competed in 7-on-7 the past few months, other JT position players honed their skills at the field house.
According to Holmes, three-fourths of the junior varsity and varsity players worked out during the summer.
“We’ve been at the weight room every day, just getting it in until it closes,” senior defensive end Kavante Jefferson said. “We’re just trying to grind, work hard.”
JT needs players like Miller, Jefferson and other Lions defenders to complete the 16-game course. JT returns several regulars on defense, led by the linemen trio of Bowser (61 tackles, five sacks), Miller (33 tackles, three sacks) and Jefferson (32 tackles, one sack); LB Richard Gipson (128 tackles, six sacks) in the middle; and the seasoned secondary of Elliot Hart (94 tackles, 2 INTs), Terry Ausborne (71 tackles, 4 INTs, TD) Traven Johnson (55 tackles, 2 INTs, TD) and Flowers.
JT forced 36 turnovers last year but allowed an average of 28 points per game.
“It’s a lot of people expecting a lot out of us,” said Jefferson, a 6-2, 190-pounder projected to start at defensive end. “I promise you it’s going to be a different ballgame.”
With so many key players back, the Lions know the opportunity at hand. The previous three JT teams combined for 35 wins, including 10 in the postseason. None returned as many starters as the current edition.
“It feels good to be a in a position like this,” added Miller, a 5-11, 235-pounder penciled in as a starter at nose tackle. “A lot of teams don’t get to be in this position. I’m just thankful John Tyler has a chance to go all the way.”