by Sam Chandler
The 2016 season did not unfold as Oak Mountain head coach Cris Bell intended. Two years removed from a 10-win season and a state quarterfinal appearance, the Eagles mustered only three wins in 11 games while surrendering more than 33 points per outing.
“You’re not going to do that and win very many football games,” said Bell, who enters his sixth season at Oak Mountain.
Still, it could have been worse.
Despite the lopsided record, Oak Mountain managed to snag the fi nal playoff spot from Class 7A, Region 3 via tiebreaker. The Eagles had dispatched region foes Vestavia Hills, Thompson and Tuscaloosa County earlier in the fall to clinch their postseason appearance, which ended with a fi rst-round loss to Hewitt-Trussville, 63-21.
“I thought we had fl ashes last year where it looked like we were going to get things on track,” said Bell, calling to mind the 34-7 win over Vestavia Hills and a buzzer-beating touchdown pass against Thompson. “But again, I did a bad job of reaching our kids on a heart level for sure with any type of consistency.”
That realization led Bell to take a look in the mirror this past offseason. He said he and his coaching staff have re-evaluated what they do and why they do it. Their hope is that the self-examination produces a modest culture shift — one that engenders team unity, player investment and love of the game.
The results, Bell said, should follow.
“Maybe the win-loss column shows it, maybe it doesn’t, but I know this: If we do things that we’re capable of doing, that stuff will take care of itself.”
Carson Bobo, a senior tight end and team leader, believes his Eagles’ 2017 offense will be explosive even amid turnover at the most critical position: quarterback. Former signal-caller Wyatt Legas graduated, and Jackson Kimbrell, a rising junior who took over in relief of Legas, has decided to concentrate on baseball.
Enter Connor Webb.
Webb, a senior, started at free safety in 2016, but this fall he’ll focus on passing balls instead of hawking them. Bell said Webb dabbled at the position as a freshman and has exhibited traits in the spring and summer that remind him of former gunslinger Warren Shader, who guided the Eagles as a dual-threat starter from 2013-15.
“He’s got a good football mind,” Bell said of Webb. “He’s got a long way to go to catch up to Warren, but he’s got a lot of the same moxie.”
Bobo will almost certainly emerge as one of his favorite targets. The 6-foot-4 receiving threat possesses the size, experience and athleticism to catch any ball aimed in his general vicinity. Plus, he runs crisp routes and has improved as a blocker.
Bell calls Bobo, who also plays basketball and throws the javelin, one of the best tight ends in the area. “He’s a kid that can play,” Bell said, “and he’s going to make somebody a good tight end on Saturdays.”
Webb will also have other options to pass to, including wideouts Nathan Jones and Trey Allen. Jones started in 2016, and Allen is an all-state high jumper. Both should be able to wield their size — and hops — to the Eagles’ advantage.
At halfback, Connor Wilson and Luke Percer will split time in a role occupied previously by Daniel Salchert and Jaylin Gaines, who both graduated. Percer earned a number of reps in 2016, as did Ethan Duncan, who will contribute at the position when he isn’t lined up as a slot receiver in Bell’s split-veer offense.
Paving the way up front will be Jacob Feenker, who returns as the starting center, and Madden McDougal, an experienced tackle. Bell expects Fuller Herring, Clay Collins and Devin Stern to plug the remaining offensive line spots.
“I know we’ve got a new quarterback, but that’s no excuse to have a weak offense,” Bobo said, “because we plan to come out stronger than we ever have.”
This is where Bell expects — and needs — to see the most improvement. Over the course of the spring and summer, he said he has.
Linebackers Jackson Murphy and Justin Evans have impressed Bell with their energy and instincts, and he projects both as key playmakers. The same goes for defensive lineman Jordan Davis.
“[He] plays with just a phenomenal motor, and that gets contagious,” Bell said.
Cornerbacks Zach Nelson and Brett Cruce join Murphy, Evans and Davis as the returning starters on defense. Ben Wilke also has extensive experience, just on the opposite side of the ball. He started last season at offensive tackle but has since shifted to defensive nose tackle.
Ben Handley and Travis Thomasson also will help anchor a defensive line that has already sustained a signifi cant loss. Jack Simmons, a senior tackle, tore his ACL during spring ball.
Jalen Thomas will provide depth at inside linebacker, while Bell expects a rotating cast to contribute at outside linebacker and strong safety. Garrison Frisch will likely take over for Webb at free safety and will help guide a secondary that will be tasked with shadowing a contingent of the state’s top receivers on a weekly basis.
“We’ve got to be really, really good about creating turnovers on defense,” Bell said. “There’s nothing novel about that. Every coach in America is saying those things, but for us this year, that’s going to be really important for our guys.”
Christian Hood, son of former Oak Mountain and Clay-Chalkville coach Jerry Hood, will perform place-kicking and punting duties. He replaces the now-graduated Nick Carney, who established himself as one of the area’s most reliable place-kickers the past two seasons. Hood also may handle kickoff duties, though Bell said that could change depending on personnel.
Nik Heino returns as the starting long snapper. Handley, the defensive lineman, will snap on extra points and field goals.
Head coach: Cris Bell
Overall record: 55-53-1
At Oak Mountain: 29-25
Tenure: 6th season
Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks: Austin Karcher
Wide Receivers: Tyler Crane and Brandon Brooks
Running Backs: Riley White
Offensive Line: Stuart Morrison
Running Backs/Quarterbacks: Brandon Lee
Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs: Rusty Frisch
Defensive Line/Strength: Steward Carlisle
Outside Linebackers: Casey Rogers
Offensive Line/Defensive Line: Wade Lyon
Linebackers: Tommy Youngblood