At 12.01 a.m. Monday, the Heritage High School football team emerged from a tunnel beneath the stadium and strode out onto the game field.
The lights were on.
The cheerleaders were there.
There were fans in the stands.
By 12:15, Heritage coach Brint Russell and his staff had the tackling dummies out for the Oklahoma drill. By 12:30, Mountaineer quarterback Tyler Hartley was connecting with playmaking wide out Chase Everett for the first of two deep touchdown throws with the first team offense.
Not exactly, Russell said. Being first to the practice field on the first day in pads is more about a mindset he wants the Mountaineers to adopt this season.
By going at midnight, “You made contact before anybody else,” Russell told the Mountaineers afterward. It’s all about “wanting to be first at everything we do,” he said. That, along with getting the community to rally around the team, made the midnight madness practice just the thing.
If the Mountaineers aren’t the only team in the state to get such an early start to fall practice, you won’t find many others. Doing things a bit differently, though, has been Russell’s calling card since arriving a year ago.
Where virtually every Heritage coach before him had leaned heavily on the running game on offense, Russell went immediately with a wide-open passing attack. Where at least four down linemen is the defensive front of choice for most high school teams, the Mountaineers went with three last season, preferring instead a defense with more linebackers on the field to chase down the ball.
Graduation this spring laid waste to last year’s receiving corps, with the top four pass catchers moving on. On defense, the linebackers took a big hit as well. Judging from Monday’s spirited first practice under the lights, replacements for all of them are being aggressively sought. In noticeable fashion on Monday, it looks as if many of them have already arrived.
“We’ve got some kids that have come out and been with us, and now’s there chance,” Russell said. “They’ve gotten after it and busted their butt in the weight room. I can’t say enough about what our kids have done over the summer, not just getting stronger but working on getting more athletic.”
Hartley faked out the second-team defense midway through the abbreviated scrimmage and lofted a perfect, rainbow spiral downfield to a wide open Chase Everett, who turned the pitch and catch into a 70-yard score. A couple of possessions later, Everett collected a Hartley pass near the right sideline, the former unleashing a wicked cutback move to leave a defender sprawled in his wake as he raced in for another long score.
“Chase is that guy we’re going to line up everywhere we can to get a mismatch,” Russell said.
Everett looked as if he could become a playmaker on the outside unlike any the Mountaineers had a year ago. Justin Newman looks as if he’s going to be another of Hartley’s favorite targets.
“I feel more solid about wide receiver than last year,” Russell said.
One of the reasons Russell has a good feeling about his retooled receivers has a lot to do with Mountaineer junior Chase Cline. The projected Mountaineer feature running back this fall, Cline was tough to keep track of on Monday. The hitting to open practice withstanding, Russell kept things light, evidenced by Cline lining up at several spots on the evening.
Heritage has no greater need this season than replacing its losses at linebacker. Monday’s scrimmage showcased several players who look as if they have the aggression for the position, Russell said. It’s likely to be the conclusion of fall practice before much is decided, though.
The thing Russell said he was most pleased about Monday was the intensity the Mountaineers displayed. The cooler temperature at midnight had a lot to do with keeping everybody fresh, he said, so much so Heritage plans to stay with the practice for a while.
There won’t be anymore 12:01 a.m. starts, but starting as late as 7 p.m. this week is proving a good way to the beat the heat, Russell said. With increased emphasis from the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association for schools to monitor heat indexes and shut down practices if necessary this season, going at night allows for more uninterrupted practices.
“It’s worked out well since it’s the same time we’ll be playing” Russell said. “We had tremendous community support (at midnight madness). It’s just an exciting time. We’re trying to get our community really looking forward to football season.”
There are a lot of questions to be answered before the Maryville Orthopaedic Clinic Jamboree Aug. 13 at William Blount. Six-time defending champion Alcoa is looking for a new linebacking quartet as it takes up pursuit of No. 7 in a row. It’s starting to look as if it’s going to be awfully tough for Maryville to choose between senior Austin Canfield and junior Patton Robinette at quarterback. William Blount will spend much of fall camp looking to rebuild its offensive line.
If how you start - and when you start - has anything to do with it, the Mountaineers could be well ahead of the game.