Editor's note: This is the final installment of a four part series featuring area head football coaches in Q&A sessions with E-T Sports Editor Brad Keith. This week, the featured coach is Joseph Gillespie, second year head man at Stephenville. The Yellow Jackets, fresh off a 10-4 season and run to the Class 4A Division II state quarterfinals, begin two-a-days on Monday.
Q: From top to bottom, how was the off-season, from the very start through spring ball, 7-on-7 and summer conditioning.
A: When I think about where we started right after Christmas and where we finished at the end of 7-on-7, we have seen great gains in every area. I hope that carries over into the season and that what we see is a finished product that's much better than we were in the first game at Aledo. Our theme this year is "On a Mission," and these kids certainly work like that. We're just eager to put that work to the test.
Q: What is it about the start of a new season that excites you the most?
A: It puts a newness, a freshness, a buzz in the air. We have a new team, a new season and a new year. We never want to take anything away from the past, and those teams have laid a great foundation. What we have to do is continue building on that for right now and the future. That's what we're focused on.
Q: How many are you expecting to turn out on Monday?
A: We have about 110 sophomores through seniors and I think about 70 freshmen, so I would say 180.
Q: What are the first issues that always have to be addressed when two-a-days begin?
A: The first thing is to emphasize just how fast things are going to move. Sometimes the kids and even the coaches come into two-a-days with a survival mindset. We already lost a week of two-a-days to do spring ball, and we play in zero week so everything has to happen fast. Every day we remind them how many practices we have until the first game. The season is a marathon, but getting to the first game is a sprint. There's a lot we have to get done before we go out under those 'Friday night lights.'
Q: You graduated all 11 full time starters on offense. Who are the players you expect to step up and be the play makers this fall?
A: Well you have to start at quarterback, that's for sure. Connor (Washington) is young but he's grown tremendously over the spring and summer. I believe he's going to do good things for us. The O-line is of course the key to any great offense. If the guys in the trenches can't get it done, you don't have a play. Of course we have James Miles at running back and we're looking for great things from him. You'll see us use him a lot of different ways. At receiver we have Cole Stokes healthy, we just have to keep him healthy. We also have guys like Charlie Riola, Josh Rodriguez and some other young kids who will help us.
Q: Connor Washington is the new starter at quarterback. What are some of his strengths and weaknesses?
A: The biggest strength Connor has is he wants to be great and not only does he want it but he's willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen. He's young and he's green, but he's extremely intelligent, not just academically but also in common sense. He just has to understand he doesn't have to win games, he just has to manage them and allow the play makers we put around him go and win them for us. With Connor, I'm real excited to see how he starts and how he finishes.
Q: What area of the team do you think will be the deepest this season?
A: We're definitely deeper on defense. We're still pretty young on that side of the ball, but we have more experience there than on offense. Depth has never been a great strength of ours. We have program players who can help us in different situations, but across the field we've never had a lot of depth?
Q: Where do you feel you have the least depth?
A: There are a few areas we don't have much depth, especially on offense because we lost all our starters over there. We have to stay healthy, but we have several kids who we can move around to different positions if we have to.
Q: How important is T.R. Varnado as a four-year lettermen and three-year starter on the defensive line?
A: The things T.R. has we could never replace. He's been down in the trenches in a lot of wars, more than anyone else on our team for sure. When you have a guy with as much ability as T.R. and he has that much experience and is a good leader like he is, it's almost like having a coach on the field. He's going to be very instrumental to any success we have.
Q: How much of an advantage is it to have a full coaching staff returning after last year when most guys on the staff were new?
A: It's huge. (Monday) we started meeting on personnel and we got accomplished in one day what took us four days last year. I think the biggest think is everybody knows all the kids. I don't mean just the ones who play their position, they know all of them, they know the plan and they know what direction we're headed.
Q: Last year you reached the state quarterfinals. What has to happen this season in order to have an opportunity to equal or better that run?
A: The kids have to keep faith. Even if we do experience tough times we all just have to keep believing in the system. We were 0-2 last year and down 21-0 at Brownwood in our third game. But that team never hit the panic button because they knew they were going to be good. We just had to put it all together. This team has to do the same thing, which is just get better every week. We want to be better in weeks three and four than we are in Aledo (in the opener).