The stream of players coming out of the locker room on the warm May Friday night just kept going and going.
A few at a time, Northside football players engaged in a slow, purposeful jog around the field house, through the gate and across the track onto McConnell-Talbert Stadium’s artificial surface.
It wasn’t an incredibly hot day, but the recycled tires used to form the playing surface kept things toasty at field level.
That line of Northside players? It seemed to never end. Between returning varsity, JV and ninth-grade prospects, some 130 players were in uniform for the Eagles’ May 12 scrimmage against Americus-Sumter.
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Prior to this year, spring practice would have ended with an intrasquad scrimmage. But all of those Northside players were going to get the chance to go up against someone who didn’t wear the Eagles’ orange and blue.
The lights and scoreboard were on, and the public address system was put to use. Fellow students were there to lend support. Minus a couple of elements, it was almost like a real football game.
A new wrinkle had been introduced to Georgia high school football. It was time to see how things would work out.
Getting the ball moving
The GHSA has allowed spring football practice for a long time. Schools are allotted 10 practices in the span of 13 school days, practice that can be conducted any time between Feb. 1 and the end of the school year.
Until this year, however, spring practice was just that: practice. The most that could happen during those 10 days was an intrasquad scrimmage.
“I talked to a lot of people around the state, and I think everyone was in favor of scrimmaging another opponent,” Peach County head coach Chad Campbell said.
Not all schools conduct spring practice. Many small schools just don’t have the resources to go through spring drills or have enough student-athletes involved in other sports or activities to where spring drills just aren’t practical. There’s also a few coaches who like to forego spring drills in order to take advantage of a GHSA rule that permits those teams to conduct a second fall scrimmage.
For rising ninth-graders, spring practice is the first time they can participate in a high school activity, even as they complete their eighth-grade years at their respective middle schools.
The initial legislation allowing spring games called for just that: a scrimmage consisting of either game-like conditions or a series of set plays, pitting one team against each other. Subsequent legislation has opened up the possibility of spring jamborees involving multiple teams at one site.
Most first-year action involved head-to-head competition. Among the bigger matchups in Middle Georgia: Americus-Sumter at Northside, Westside at Veterans, Thomson at Peach County and Houston County at Buford.
The biggest show of the spring, however, might have taken place in south Georgia, with Valdosta and Lowndes throwing a wrinkle into one of the state’s top rivalries.
Juicy matchups, for sure. But how would the players react?
Omar Jones knew he had to be ready to run some sharp pass routes. A rising senior, Jones led the Seminoles last season with 405 receiving yards on 20 catches, scoring eight touchdowns.
Westside, however, has a quarterback coming up through the system who can throw well and throw deep. And it was up to Jones and his Westside teammates to get open and make things easier on their young quarterback.
“We’re trusting in our rookie quarterback,” Jones said. “We’re getting him some confidence, and we are going to keep working.”
Vic Dixon had plenty of unrushed time to develop as a ninth-grader last fall. He saw just a touch of varsity playing time, completing 3-of-4 passes for 47 yards as he backed up graduating senior Savion Knowlton.
With Knowlton departing, Friday’s spring game at Veterans gave Dixon a chance to show coaches what he could do in a live game situation.
Dixon wasn’t afraid to put some air under the ball. He quickly threw some deep routes, finding Jones more than once early on for some beautiful catches.
“(Friday) was a confidence booster for him,” Westside head coach Spoon Risper said. “It was his first time playing with the big boys. There were a couple of times where he looked like a deer in the headlights, but he overcame that and made some good throws. He made some mistakes, but he made a lot of good plays, also.”
Westside wound up outscoring Veterans 35-21, with most of Westside’s total attributable to Dixon’s first-half performance in which he threw for roughly 200 yards.
Setting up something big, perhaps?
Since falling six points short of a Georgia Dome trip in December, Peach County wanted nothing more than to get back out on the field.
The Trojans’ May 13 spring game against Thomson, last year’s Class 4A runner-up, gave the Trojans just such an opportunity.
“I thought it went well,” Campbell said. “It was something the kids looked forward to, not having to scrimmage themselves at the end of the campaign.”
While there are some holes to fill, several key pieces of last year’s Region 4-3A title team are back. Peach County is always a threat to go deep into the postseason, but there’s a sense that the 2017 team could be special.
While there was some off-field controversy surrounding the game from the Thomson side, as head coach Rob Ridings had recently been allowed to resume coaching duties following a 10-day unpaid suspension resulting from an intimidation incident involving a middle school student, things went well from the Peach County standpoint. The Trojans outscored Thomson 23-0, and Campbell was pleased with the effort put in.
“I thought we got better as the days went on (this spring),” Campbell said. “It kind of gives you a little momentum going into the summer, see what you’ve got to work on a little bit more, maybe see some guys who might be able to help you out that you might not think could. We went injury-free, which was good, and it’s a good springboard going into the summer.”
An unappreciated curveball
While a number of coaches like the idea of going up against someone else to close out spring drills, at least one Middle Georgia coach didn’t like how things turned out the first time around.
Northside head coach Kevin Kinsler felt Americus-Sumter didn’t give his team a clean defensive look during their May 12 scrimmage.
“I don’t think we kind of got what we wanted right there,” Kinsler said. “I’ve got to rethink whether we want to do this anymore.”
Generally, during scrimmages and spring games, teams put forth “vanilla” offenses and defenses. The basics of the playbook are put into use, but gimmicks and trick plays are withheld.
The Americus-Sumter defense, Kinsler felt, went beyond vanilla. That defense stacked things up inside, making it difficult for a run-first Northside offense to get many good looks.
“They were stunting eight, nine guys,” Kinsler said. “Offensively, in the spring, you don’t really prepare for stuff like that. I’m not sure offensively how much we were able to get a good look.”
While the teams essentially played to a draw, with the sides running 10-play series instead of going with pure game-type conditions, there were few big plays.
“Defensively, I thought the guys did a pretty good job doing their assignments,” Kinsler said. “We got the chance to play and look at a lot of people. But we’re going to have to rethink how we do this whole format here, since offensively I’m not sure we got a whole lot done.”
Georgia’s first dose of high school spring game action gave high schools an extra chance to open up their football stadiums and bring people out for a taste of what the upcoming season will bring.
Concession stands were open. Cheerleaders took part. Multiple officiating crews worked on their mechanics and traded stories with their cohorts as they rotated into the game.
It wasn’t a full Friday night of action, for sure. But Georgia’s first taste of spring football games provided a healthy warm-up for what will be coming in three months.
Even coaches like Veterans’ David Bruce, who were on the short end of the scoreboard, saw plenty to take out of the experience.
“It’s a growing experience for us, and it’s something that we enjoy,” Bruce said of the spring game. “It sure beats the heck out of going up against yourself.”