This is the 12th in a series of stories previewing football teams in the Bi-City area. Coming Thursday: Carver
The Kendrick High football team circled around as, two at a time, players faced off in a tackling drill on Monday at practice.
The players would get low in their stance, one carrying a ball, and take off after each other.
The sounds of helmets and pads crashing into each other could be heard only momentarily as the cheers, jeers and laughs quickly drowned them out each time.
Coach Jerry Dukes stood at the center of it all, like a referee, taking it in and encouraging his players.
The intensity was high, the contact physical, and the players were enjoying every minute of it.
They looked nothing like a team coming off just five wins in the past four seasons.
"A lot of these kids have been out here all summer with me," Dukes said. "That makes a big difference, along with the maturity. And they're having a good time."
Players are confident. A couple even suggested that a winning season and a playoff berth weren't out of the question.
When asked for the source of their optimism, they all pointed to the defensive side of the football.
"I think the whole team has grown really, but the defense looks good," said Marvin Lewis, a junior inside linebacker. "Our secondary is outstanding. I don't even have to look back to see if the offense caught the ball, because I already know it's on the ground."
That secondary is led by cornerbacks Jamar Comar and Dover Coppins, athletic seniors who have gained the confidence of teammates and coaches alike.
Emmanuel Brown is a big help to Lewis on the inside at the linebacker spot, as well, but Dukes said it was the men up front that have him most excited on defense.
"The defense had a shutout the other night in the scrimmage," Dukes said. "They got after it, and that's what we asked from them. We have two senior corners, to junior outside backers, a junior safety, but I think the biggest thing is the disruption that the front line created. They stayed in the quarterback's face."
The same praise could be directed toward the offensive line, as well, Dukes said.
He has been pleased with its progress and sees even more potential when he looks at the size and experience up front.
There is Emmanuel Lemon (6-4, 260), Leander James (6-1, 320), and Heath and Keath Pugh (both about 5-7, 280), the latter of whom Dukes said were the strongest individuals on the team.
The team's center, Patrick Fax, a transfer from Chattahoochee County, is the smallest on the line, but also a significant addition to the team.
Dukes called the sophomore a "blessing to the program."
The Cherokees have a returning starter at quarterback in junior Jonathan Hines, and experience at running back and wide receiver with Comar and Coppins.
"We still have our share of mistakes," Dukes said. "But I like where we are now compared to where we were in years past."
Sure, the team could improve on fundamentals, the coach said. There could always be improvement in blocking, tackling and general understanding of the terminology.
But when he looks at his team, he doesn't see 2-8.
Neither do the players, and that's a minor victory in itself. Belief in future success is often half the battle.
"We've got a lot of confidence in ourselves," Coppins said. "And the coaches believe in us, too. It feels a little different this year. We're looking at the playoffs, definitely. That's what we want to do. Playoffs this year, and then go from there."
Lewis had the same things to say about the team's prospects in 2012.
"I feel confident about this year," he said. "I think this is a playoff team."
Dukes said that they'll know more about how far this team can go after its first game on Aug. 31 at Americus-Sumter.
"We'll have a better scale after we play that first game," he said. "We've still got a ways to go, but I like what I've seen."
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571