By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — Effingham County made a significant jump from three wins to six in coach John Ford’s first season. Now can the Rebels continue to progress in Season Two?
Like a father with multiple children, Ford would rather not make comparisons.
“We had kids that practiced hard, played hard and were coachable (last season) and they went out on Friday nights and executed so credit goes to them,” Ford said. “But I say all the time, this year doesn’t care about last year. Today doesn’t care about yesterday. Last year is gone, buried, whether it was good or bad. We’re just trying to work on being an elite version of ourselves (this year).”
The first chance to see how elite comes Friday night in the season opener at Richmond Hill. Last week’s scrimmage at Screven County was washed out by rain.
Last season, ECHS (6-4, 4-2 in Region 2-AAAAAA) used a short passing attack to move the ball effectively and had players step up on defense. The Rebels scored 87 more points on offense and gave 103 fewer points.
As a result, ECHS took region championship hopes into the final week of the regular season and played in its first state tournament game since 2019.
That was last year.
But excitement and expectation have been stirred. An explosive group of skill players are back and team leader, Keion Wallace, returns after missing most of 2021 with a shoulder injury.
Wallace, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound wide receiver/safety, has 11 Division I-A offers, including Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, Mississippi, Louisville and West Virginia.
“Keion is such a dynamic player. He’s a two-way starter so losing him last year was like losing two players. Now it’s like getting two players back,” Ford said.
Wallace’s return only makes a talented receiving corp more talented. Timmy Brown (first-team all-region last year), Messiah Bacon (honorable mention) and Ashley Thompson (first-team all-region as a defensive back) round out the starting four.
Ty Ergle, Blake Hendrix, Ryan Wells, Zach Gant, Lamar Roberts and Gary Cooper will get playing time in Ford’s equal opportunity system.
“We roll kids in on waves,” Ford said. “We’re like a hockey-line change.”
Junior Nate Hayes is the heir apparent at quarterback, replacing graduated all-region signal caller Matthew Ford. Hayes has a strong arm and quick feet and can be an added threat in the run game. Landen Wright pushed Hayes for the starting job during the preseason.
John Ford said the running backs will come from a talented group that includes Jayden Evans, Colton Oglesby, Damion Gordon, Te’andre Watkins and Tyler Smith.
Junior Zach Harbin played a lot in the H-back/tight end position. Kyler Stone and Zack Webb will be in the mix for playing time.
The offensive line has experience led by Desmond Montgomery, Josh Kleckauskas, Brady Meglan, Trey Gordy and Noah Logan. Gordy was an honorable mention all-region performer at guard last season.
Jackson Blaine, who started a few games a year ago, will provide depth along with Sam Jarriel, Nick Daughtry, Josh Ford and Trace Wright.
On defense, powerful first-team all-region Keysean McCarr and honorable mention performers Cooper Nease and Christian Dillon are the nucleus of an experienced line.
At linebacker, CJ Reese is back on the strong side. Stone started at bandit and Luke Roberts, Bryce Goldwire and Bryson Horton will be vying for jobs on the weak side and middle.
The wide receiver group, led by Wallace, Thompson, Bacon and Brown, will do double duty in the secondary. Cameron Roper is expected to see playing time as well.
Jonah Strickland will do the placekicking.
“We’re excited about getting started,” Ford said. “I don’t want to compare this year’s team to last year, because I don’t want anyone to be devalued. Each team has its own culture. Each team has its own vibe. Every team is different.”