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Lizi Arbogast / The Outlook Benjamin Russell players take on the first day of fall practice Monday afternoon.

This year was a bit of an enigma for local high school football teams as they started fall practice Monday even though school has not begun.

Because of that conflict, Benjamin Russell had to change things up this season. Many of the coaches on the Wildcat staff are teachers within the district and had to attend their respective schools’ open houses night, forcing the football team to move in reverse.

“We hate that going into the first day but it is what it is; we just had to adjust,” Benjamin Russell coach Kevin Smith said.

Instead of starting with individual drills and working their way up to full-team stuff, the Wildcats started with team work. After stretches, they scripted 20 plays each for the offense and defense and went at it before working backward and breaking down into individual position groups. They finished with special teams work and camp-style drills.

“We can do that with less coaches so that’s why we started with the team stuff (Monday),” Smith said.

Despite it being a bit different than in years past, there was one constant: A definite excitement in the air. Although football teams across the state have been hitting the practice fields for a couple months now, it’s just not quite the same energy as the first official day of practice.

“I thought they had a really good energy coming up (Monday),” Smith said. “For the seniors, I told them that this is their last first day and that kinda gets them going.” 

Benjamin Russell is a Class 6A team and with so many players on the rosters, there isn’t as much preseason competition for starting jobs. For the most part, the Wildcats know who will be the first 11 out on the field on both offense and defense. But at this point in the preseason, they’re still trying to build depth and Smith had a few youngsters he was especially impressed by.

“We have a couple young guys that I’m honestly a little bit surprised by,” Smith said. “I don’t know that they’ll start but they are competing and battling. We have Dontarious Thomas at corner who’s come in and shown some promise. Gavin Vickers coming in, he’s a leader right now. Without saying anything but just with his effort and his motor, he sparks people around him.”

As for the seniors and returning starters, well, Smith isn’t surprised by what they’ve shown so far.

“We know what they can do and they’ve shown it,” Smith said. “We have a whole list of people who are doing exactly what we’d knew they’d do.”

Because Smith is a meticulous planner, one of his major measures of success on Day 1 was purely efficiency. While he wanted to see how well the players’ knowledge during the summer was going to translate into fall practice, it was more about setting a tone early for what’s to come the rest of the season.

“Today starts the structure of the practice,” Smith said. “What we do today will transfer into three months from now. The earlier we get it, the more efficient you are going to be.”

Of course the Wildcats will continue to work hard on the field, but a lot of what they’re hoping to accomplish before the season starts Aug. 23 is more from a mental standpoint. How players respond and react in fourth-quarter situations is a good metaphor for life, and that’s something Smith wants to continue to measure as the preseason rolls along.

“How are you going to finish?” Smith said. “What’s our character going to look like in the fourth quarter? I think back to last year against Clay Central, I think we showed a lot of character there in the fourth quarter. If can make that consistent, that’s the ticket.” 

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.