2018 Record: 1-9.
Quote of the summer: “In 8-man football, you want to create one-on-one matchups and get the ball to your best athletes in space. We want to get the ball in the hands of Robbie Magee, Trace McCurley and Eli Smith, and use their athleticism.” — Franklin Academy coach Bubba Ezell.
Overview: Improvement shouldn’t be much of a challenge for the Franklin Academy Cougars. Last year’s lone victory came at the expense of lowly Rebul (Miss.) Academy, which suited up only eight players for the contest.
In an effort to reverse its fortunes, FA brought in a familiar face to direct the varsity program. Bubba Ezell, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Winnsboro, coached FA’s Pee Wee team to back-to-back Swamp Bowl championships the past two seasons. While Ezell is no stranger to FA, this marks his first experience at both the varsity and 8-man levels.
“It’s one thing to coach little kids who listen to every word you say, and it’s another thing to coach teenagers who could care less about what you have to say,” Ezell joked.
Ezell, who will coordinate the defense, brought in a highly-qualified fellow Baptist preacher to run the offense. Jim Savage, the pastor of Sardis Baptist Church, brings a wealth of experience to the Cougars. Like Ezell, this is Savage’s first venture into the 8-man brand.
“Jim has coached all over the country,” Ezell said. “He was the running backs coach for the Washington Redskins, and he’s coached at University High and ULL (Louisiana Lafayette).”
Preseason camp has been an introductory process for the Cougars.
“We have a lot of new guys that came out, and we have put in a whole new offense and a whole new defense,” Ezell said.
Like most of their counterparts, the Cougars are fighting a numbers battle.
“We only have 16 guys and four of those are freshmen,” Ezell said. “We’re going to have to play both ways. It is what it is.”
FA will open regular season play Friday night at Tensas Academy.
Offense: FA’s offense is built around juniors Robbie Magee, Trace McCurley and Eli Smith. Who will line up where remains a mystery as all three can play quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
“Those three are interchangeable,” Ezell said. “We really haven’t decided on a starting lineup yet.”
Either way, the big three will be at the center of the attack.
“We are going to open it up offensively, try to spread people out, create some running lanes and get the ball in our best players hands in space,” Ezell said. “In 11-man football, you have smaller running lanes. In 8-man, you want to take people out of the play and create one-on-one matchups with your best athletes. A lot of times, you can dictate who is on your best athletes by what you do.”
Rounding out the starters at the skill positions are a pair of seniors — wide receiver Dale Duke and slot receiver Ben Lockard.
Junior center Jacob Ratcliff is joined up front by senior Garrett Halbrook and sophomore Mabry Harris at the guard positions.
Senior Caleb Hill, who missed last season with a knee injury, is available at both guard and running back.
Ratcliff and Smith will do the kicking.
Defense: Ezell is counting on linebackers Hall, senior Tristan Cuenca and junior Gavin Whittington to spearhead the defense.
“I think our linebackers and cornerbacks are going to be strong,” Ezell said. “Eight-man football is not a defensive battle. I just want us to create a turnover or two and get a stop every once in a while.”
Halbrook and Ratcliff are the two down linemen.
“We need to be able to create some penetration up front, so we don’t have to blitz so much,” Ezell said. “Our linebackers are athletic enough to come up against the run and drop back in coverage.”
The secondary has Smith and Duke at the corners and senior Max Harris at safety.
Providing depth are freshmen Dylan McMurry, Cade Bailey, Samuel Carrington and Riley Remore.
District outlook: Under reclassification, the Mid-South Association of Independent Schools (formerly the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools) split its 8-man league into two classifications.
FA was assigned to District 4-2A along with Union Christian, Riverdale and Claiborne. Last year, the Cougars were in the same conference with such powers as defending state champion Tallulah, Prairie View and Briarfield, each of which were assigned to Class 2A.
“I think being placed with the smaller schools is going to help us,” Ezell said.