A year ago, before it advanced to its first postseason since 1999, the Kendrick football team was on the practice field taking instruction from coach Jerry Dukes.
Dukes stopped often, between most plays, to give instruction to players. It was less live-game situations, more learning scheme and understanding where to be in which situations.
On Friday, the Cherokees’ practice took a different atmosphere. They were hitting. They were running live plays, preparing for a scrimmage against Cairo next Friday.
“I know we’re not fully game ready,” Dukes said after rain ended the practice early. “We’re going to make some mistakes, but we’ve got some players. We’ve got a leg up on last year. I think we’re a lot better off than we were at this point last year.”
That’s a good sign.
Kendrick started the season 0-3, but won five of its final seven regular season games to clinch a postseason berth for the first time in 13 years. In the playoffs, it ran into the eventual state champion Jefferson, losing 42-8. That game, though, was a great experience for a team still trying to progress.
“I was impressed in that game,” Dukes said. “We had some good moments. We were able to move the ball some. They were a good team, obviously. But that experience gives them a leg up. I think that’s really going to help.”
Dukes said the offense returns six players, including quarterback Jonathan Hines. The offensive line lost two key players, Heath and Keath Pugh, but Dukes said he likes the size and continuity in the returning players.
Senior Patrick Fax anchors the line at center, and Emmanuel Lemon and Leander James round out the returning linemen.
Reno Lee and Brandon Wade share running back duties, and Marvin Lewis and Emmanuel Brown split time at tight end.
The Pugh brothers were a big loss, Dukes said, but the coach still believes the unit is further along this season than last. Improving the unit will be key to taking the next step, considering it scored more than 20 points on just three occasions last season. In its losses, it averaged 11.7 points.
Dukes, a professed “old-school coach” said the team is focused on blocking. Good blocking, he said, would make the offense work more effectively.
Dukes narrowed things down to tackling on defense. Luckily, that wasn’t a big problem for the team a year ago. While the offense had some deficiencies, the defense was a strength for the majority of the season. At times, it faltered, allowing more than 30 points on four occasions.
Still, the unit was a strength and it returns a handful of its top performers.
Both Lewis and Brown led the team at linebacker. It also returns juniors Tyrell Griffin and Anthony McGruder. The one question mark is the secondary, which lost a lot. Dukes wouldn’t give starters in that unit, saying he’d rather let them make a name for themselves.
“Then you’ll know,” he said with a smile.
The defense has a chance to improve again, returning its best players and having another season to progress under Dukes.
Overall, Kendrick appears to be improved yet again. The question is whether it can keep up with the improvements made with other teams in the region.
It’s too early to tell, Dukes said.
For one, Dukes knows his team won’t surprise anyone.
“If we win games, it’s going to be because we’re better, more prepared,” Dukes said. “We aren’t going to sneak up on anyone this year.”
While that’s probably true, Kendrick can rely on its experience. Playing the state champion in the first round of the players was an unforeseen positive experience, Dukes said.
Will the Cherokees win more games? It’s hard to say, but all signs point to more progress in the right direction.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.