It was never a question of who’s the guy in last place.
What made all the difference on Brint Russell’s second day of spring practice as Heritage coach was how hard the guy in last place was running.
Talon Brown brought up the rear among offensive players on the first post-practice sprint on Tuesday. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound freshman tackle would finish last on the second 40-yard run as well.
He wasn’t done, though.
On the third sprint, Brown, leaning forward, pushing, picked off a teammate at the line. The fourth time down — determined to “give it all I’ve got,” he said — the Mountaineer rookie got there ahead of a pair of teammates, repeating the symbolic victory on a down-and-back that followed.
That’s how it’ll happen, Russell said. The Mountaineers aren’t going to learn to be winners next week, he said. It’s not going to happen next month. It has to happen with every practice, every sprint.
“What these kids don’t understand is they can be winners,” Russell said. “It’s in them to be winners. They just have to grasp it.”
Hired in January, Russell will take the Mountaineers through spring ball the next two weeks, highlighted by scrimmages this Friday and next. Russell said he hopes to see Heritage show well in both, but he won’t be handing out failing or passing grades.
“I don’t think next Friday will determine if we’ll be successful,” he said. “It’s a chance to show what we’ve learned.
“For me, the victory is two weeks before Friday, when we learn to practice hard everyday.”
Most noticeable on Russell’s first two days on the practice field with his new team was what you didn’t see: Not once did the curious who dropped by for a look see a Mountaineer quarterback take the snap from under center.
“And you won’t,” Russell said.
Along with a change in mindset, Russell is chucking the Mountaineer power running game of a year ago for the spread. They’ll work in six passing and six running plays over the next two weeks, he said. They’ll go easy on defense as well, where a 3-4 front seven is being installed.
A revamped Heritage coaching staff, complete with several new faces, is confident Russell is just the coach to turn around the school’s fortunes of late. That Heritage is coming off a 1-9 finish a year ago doesn’t faze Russell very much, either.
“I knew what I was getting into when I came here,” he said. “There are going to be detractors and there are going to be people who say, ‘Show me.’”
Backed by an unshakable faith, that is exactly what he intends to do, he said.
“I was lead here,” Russell said.
His boss’ religious faith isn’t a hard sell, Mountaineer assistant coach Chad Tipton said. Neither is it one Russell shies from. It’s one of the first things Tipton said he found engaging about the new skipper.
Shortly after taking the job, Russell took his still-forming coaching staff, along with those from affiliated middle schools, on a day trip to an instructional clinic. On the way home, the group stopped for a bite to eat. Once everyone was served, Russell asked for quiet.
“He said, ‘Does anyone mind if I bless the food,’” Tipton said. “I knew right there he had the right character. He’s just a family guy.
“He’s just one of those people that make you want to follow him. Look at his actions, and it’ll tell the whole story. I just think he’s going to give it everything he’s got and he’s going to turn it around.”
The tempo Russell enforced during practice on Monday and Tuesday was driving, with the Mountaineers hustling quickly from station to station. Practice both days concluded with a spirited, 11-on-11 scrimmage.
Russell is a stickler for preparedness, Mountaineer assistant coach Jason Hicks said. His practice schedule is timed to the minute.
“It’s really detailed,” Hicks said. “He puts a lot of time into it.”
The rest, he said, is a confidence that’s infectious.
“The first word that comes to mind is amazing,” Hicks said. “He’s so positive and knows what he wants and what it takes to get there.”
Hicks played his high school football at nearby Maryville, one of the state’s most storied programs. The Rebels will be well-represented on Russell’s staff, with former Maryville Mr. Football finalist Brandon Waters the Mountaineers new strength and offensive line coach.
At Maryville, Waters learned his craft from some of the finest minds in the game in Rebel head coach George Quarles and offensive line coach David Ellis. Russell doesn’t have their championships yet, Waters said, but underestimating the new Mountaineer coach would be a big mistake.
“He’s sharp,” Waters said, “and he’s exactly what Heritage High School needed.
“Yeah, he’s pretty good. He’s pretty sharp.”
The Mountaineers trained their focus on three words as they went through winter workouts, Waters said: accountability, commitment and dedication. That’s with every repetition, every weight station, he said.
“We tell them to, ‘Believe you can win; dedicate yourself,’” Waters said.
For emphasis, he said, Russell relayed to the Mountaineers the story of the 2008 Hillcrest High School Knights.
The Idaho team had lost 22 consecutive games through the end of the 2007 season. Hillcrest hadn’t made the state playoffs in 10 years.
The Knights welcomed new coach Darin Owens to the program with the 2008 season, then promptly lost in his first game at the helm. Hillcrest would not lose another game the rest of the year, rolling to a state crown no one saw coming. In the title game, Hillcrest thumped favored Jerome, 55-35, to become champions.
“We keep pushing the kids, ‘That could be you,’” Waters said. “It all goes back to you can never give up.”
Brown said his plan is to slim down over the remainder of spring practice and the summer. Sheer size makes the Mountaineer newcomer a candidate for playing time come fall. His performance Tuesday only boosts his stock, Russell said.
“I want a kid that wants to be here,” he said. “I want a kid that wants to be a part of Heritage High School football for no other reason than he wants to give his best.”