Stephenville kicks off two-a-day football workouts Monday, marking the beginning of a highly-anticipated season. The Yellow Jackets are ranked No. 4 by both Texas Football Magazine and The Old Coach’s Friday Night Football Texas. Head coach Joseph Gillespie sat down with E-T sports editor Brad Keith for their exclusive annual Q&A session. Read on as Gillespie discusses experience, depth, exciting newcomers and more.
Stephenville, ranked No. 4 in 4A by two preseason polls, begins two-a-day football workouts at 7 a.m. Monday. Head Yellow Jacket Joseph Gillespie sat down with Empire-Tribune sports editor Brad Keith for their annual question and answer feature.
Q. First thing’s first. How many players are you expecting to have out there Monday morning?
A. We are anticipating around 125 with sophomores through seniors and 80-85 freshmen. We could potentially have 200 kids and that has been a goal of mine. We want to get 200 kids out here and I think we’re going to flirt with that mark if not exceed it.
Q. It’s your third year as head coach. How much have you learned the first two years that will benefit you and the team?
A. I think the biggest thing is that we are starting to have a lot of experience with these kids. Not just me, the entire staff. Year one, half our staff was still getting to know the kids. To know your kids inside-out, what strengths and weaknesses they have, what motivates them, that’s huge. Now we feel like we already have a base built for our offense and defense, not just at one level, but at all levels throughout the program. Everyone knows their roles inside-out and the expectations that lie ahead of us.
Q. You won a district championship last year, won a game in the playoffs, then had the disappointing loss to Aledo. What has been the driving force for the program since that loss last November?
A. The past couple years we’ve been a play or two away from at least advancing to another round. We’d love to say we’re a play or two away from putting a ring on our finger, but anything can happen. I feel like we certainly propelled Aledo toward their state championship, and I think a win that night might have done the same thing for us. I think what Aledo winning state did for us was make our kids realize, ‘Yeah, we’re pretty good and we are close.’ Now we know the sky’s the limit and the only question is are we willing to work that much harder, because there are still a couple more hurdles to clear to make it a reality and not just a dream.
Q. Every year the team picks a theme. What’s the theme this year and what does it mean to the coaches and players?
A. The theme is “Time to make the play.” I know I’ve lost sleep at night thinking about being one or two plays away from maybe doing something special, and I know all of our coaches and players have lost sleep thinking about that, too. Aledo picked up two 4th and 1’s. If we stop either one of those we win and move on. Now it’s time to make the play.
Q. What will be the biggest points of emphasis the first four days before you put the pads on Friday?
A. We’re going to revisit our base and keep it in tact. We have a lot of kids returning with a lot of game experience under their belts, both offensively and defensively. Sometimes when that happens you tend to try to move forward too fast. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to make sure we revisit our base and make sure we’re ready to execute so that when the pads do go on, we’re ready to roll.
Q. Where do you believe your team will have the most depth this fall?
A. The quarterback position really stands out to me because it was such a concern this time last year. We were faced with the hard question - What would happen if Connor (Washington) got hurt? We’ve obviously got more depth at QB now. Hunter Bernays took every snap for JV last year and Tyler Jones took every snap as a freshman. We also have Brayden Coverdale who took every snap on the sophomore team. We’re deep in some other areas, but I kind of feel like we’re the deepest at QB. It’s the opposite of where we were last year.
Q. Where might the team have the least depth?
A. Losing JC Landers (to a knee injury during spring ball) wrenches my heart. He was not just going to be a typical backup RB behind James Myles. He was going to play and do a lot of different things for us. That was a big shot because he had the ability to be a great utility player. So I have a little concern about RB depth, and also the depth at receiver. We will be a little green there and probably won’t have a lot of depth.
Q. Four of five starters return up front and the fifth is replaced by a returning letterman. How important is the experience on the offensive line.
A. It’s huge. You can have Peyton Manning back there taking snaps - if you’re not going to protect him it doesn’t matter. One of the most impressive things last year was how our offensive line progressed from game to game. D.J. Vanden Berge will anchor the line at the center position and he’s a great player who is going to have a lot of opportunities to go to the next level. Ben Dammers is back from an off-season ankle injury and he’s 100 percent clear and will play guard. The other guard is Nic Perez. He played on the varsity and got a lot of reps last year. He’ll be filling in the other guard spot where we lost Dylan Frazier. The tackles are Austin Melvin and Kody Travis. They’ve already proven they can protect us out there on the edge.
Q. With James Myles and Connor Washington do you feel like you have the best RB-QB combo in all of 4A?
A. Oh, I think we’re certainly up there. Aledo’s is similar with (Matthew) Bishop and (Jonathan) Gray, and here we are with Washington and Myles. Having guys like that makes for some things that are a lot of fun. We’re going to be able to do so much more from an offensive standpoint than we could last year. Early on last year we knew we had to protect those young pups for the bigger games to come. That’s not going to be our thinking this year. We’re going to go into it ready to roll.
Q. Defensively you have eight starters back and a ninth who started two seasons ago. What does that unit have to do to match last season’s performance with a pair of shutouts and all the defensive touchdowns?
A. Well I guess we have to pitch a couple more shutouts and score a few more touchdowns (laugh). No, really, we went through a stint there where we scored defensively in some form or fashion in like four games in a row. I can’t recall off the top of my head ever being part of a run like that as long as I’ve been coaching. When you’re on defense you have to walk around with a chip on your shoulder. We didn’t reach our ultimate goal last year, so we have to perform even better this year. Hopefully that will provide that chip, that edge, that drives us to accomplish those types of feats.
Q. What position battles do you see unfolding or continuing in the coming weeks?
A. We have some competition at some receiver positions. A couple of (the receiver spots) are solidified, but we still have at least one that is a little open. There will be opportunities for kids to show us over the next 10 days that they want those spots. We also still have competition at defensive end. The kids playing there continually improved as the spring went on. We’re not as big as we have been at end, but we are quicker. We may have a rotation there rather than expect a couple kids to play 60 or 70 snaps in a game.
Q. Who are some of the guys we don’t know about yet, but will know very well by the end of the season?
A. Gabe Barrios is a spark plug. He can really get things going for us. He’s not a big physical specimen, but he has a lot of heart and is a heck of a football player. He’s replacing Charlie Riola and I think he’ll do a great job picking up where Charlie left off. Defensively, I think we’re going to find out that our ends - Alex Chavez and those guys - can play. There are some others on the tip of my tongue and in the forefront of my mind that I want to talk about, but I don’t want to put that pressure on them right now. I’ll talk about them when the time comes.
Q. What is it about this time of year that excites you most?
A. We’ve been working so hard through three phases of off-season, 7-on-7 and summer conditioning that we’re almost tired of prepping for it. It’s time to put it together and have some fun, and we’re ready to do that.