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Heaton: Offensive line making major progress, QB competition going well

The 2017 season isn’t set to kick off for another couple of months, but Mark Heaton knows how important this final week of June could be to the development of his Russellville football team.

At the very least, the Golden Tigers will be extremely busy.

“It’s wide open, man,” Heaton said on Monday morning. “We’ve got everybody going in a hundred different directions.”

Russellville has 18 linemen taking part Monday and Tuesday in the Southeastern Line Camp at Clay-Chalkville High School. Each year, the camp—run by Mountain Brook head coach Chris Yeager—draws more than 600 campers from more than 70 schools from Texas to North Carolina. According to its website, the camp is also used as an opportunity to evaluate linemen for the Alabama/Mississippi All-Star Game.

“They’ve been doing it for a while,” said Heaton, now in his fourth year at RHS. “Coach Yeager at Mountain Brook is one of the best offensive line coaches in the state of Alabama, one of the best in the Southeast.”

The Golden Tigers are re-loading on the offensive line following the graduation of four starters in May. Senior left guard John David Palmer is the only returner, but Heaton said that two defensive starters—senior John David Aycock and junior Will Rushing—have provided much-needed reinforcements along the offensive front.

“John David Aycock is playing defensive end as well as right tackle,” Heaton said. “He’s been tremendous. He’s really come along. And I’ve been impressed with how much better John David Palmer has gotten since the spring.

“John David and John David are really leading that group right now and building that chemistry you have to have. That group is starting to come together. We’re trying to get five guys in sync. With the offensive line, you’ve gotta be really tight. With those guys, it’s all about cohesion, and being in camp together and battling together will help with that. They’re gonna get the mess worked out of them, so they’ll be better for that, but it’s also a great chance to build that chemistry.”

Rushing, who missed spring practice while recovering from a meniscus injury, played a lot of snaps at nose guard last season as a sophomore, but he also has plenty of previous experience on the offensive line. Heaton said Rushing has been running first-team at left tackle this summer.

“That’s where Will has always kind of played,” Heaton said. “He’s playing defensively for us, too. He’s gonna start at left tackle and at nose. Hopefully we’ll have some guys come on at tackle who can give him a break. But having him over there [on the offensive line] has been huge. Just having somebody there who knows the ropes has been big.”

The addition of Aycock and Rushing has brought clarity and stability to an area that projected as a major question mark heading into 2017.

“I’ve been super-impressed and very happy with where we are,” Heaton said of the offensive line. “We’re getting a lot better every day. We’re making great strides. We’re not just improving a little bit—we’re getting a lot better a lot faster than I expected. We’re a lot better off than I thought we would be.”

The Golden Tigers have more experience on the defensive line, where rising seniors Jeff Lloyd and Roman Cortez join Rushing and Aycock as returning starters.

While the linemen slug it out at Clay-Chalkville, Heaton and 25 of Russellville’s skill players will leave bright and early Tuesday morning for a 7-on-7 camp at Birmingham Southern College—where former Golden Tiger standout Cameron DeArman is now preparing for his sophomore season.

Pool play is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, with the double-elimination tournament slated for the afternoon.

“They’ve had this camp for a while, but this is the first time I’ve been to it,” Heaton said. “One of the reasons we looked into doing it was because Cam is down there at Birmingham Southern. We saw it, and we thought it would be a good experience for our guys.”

The Golden Tigers return a wealth of veteran talent at the skill positions, including senior receivers/defensive backs Logan Jones and Robert Hamilton, senior slot back/linebacker Bernard Phinizee and junior tailback Zaye Boyd. But they also have several freshman poised to play key roles at receiver in their first season at the varsity level—which makes camps like the one at BSC on Tuesday all the more valuable.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that are in new positions, guys who are learning,” Heaton said. “I don’t wanna say young any more, because I don’t think we’re young any more. We’ve gone through a whole spring, and we’ve gotta play like a seasoned team. There are no excuses. We’ve gotta get the job done.

“The more experience we can get our guys, the more we can put them in a competitive environment, the better we’ll be and the faster we’ll grow.”

The Golden Tigers will get an opportunity for even more growth on Thursday of this week when they travel down to Montgomery for the USA Football/ALFCA 7-on-7 Championships. Russellville will compete in the smaller-school division (classes 1A-5A).

“The number one thing we get out of this week is putting our guys in a competitive environment,” said Heaton, who has guided the Golden Tigers to a 27-9 record in three seasons, including an 8-4 mark last year. “We got a ton of reps in the spring, and we’ve gotten a ton of reps these first three weeks here in summer practice. They’ve been competing and getting reps against each other, but this is gonna put them in a game environment where they’re competing against somebody else. It’s always great competition when you go down to these things.

“The second thing for us is building some depth. We’re taking 25 kids, and you only have six or seven guys on the field at a time, so we’re gonna play a ton of kids and try to keep guys fresh—especially in pool play. There’s no better way to learn than to be in a competitive environment.”

Perhaps the most noteworthy competition for the Golden Tigers this summer is at quarterback, where junior Devin Buckhalter and freshman Luke Barnwell are vying to replace three-year starter Payton Nichols. Buckhalter—a dynamic receiver who led the team last season with 35 catches for 514 yards while also serving as Nichols’ primary backup—started the spring game against Saks at quarterback and hooked up with Phinizee on a 34-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Barnwell took over in the third quarter and led Russellville on a long scoring drive—capping it off with a 26-yard touchdown toss to Buckhalter on fourth down.

Heaton has been pleased with the way the quarterback competition has unfolded this summer.

“It’s going really well,” he said. “All of our guys are always competing every time we step on the field, but what’s unique about the two guys we have at that spot is how they’re competing to try and make each other better. Both of them are learning their roles, and they’re both comfortable with that. What’s been awesome is, Devin is further ahead right now because of the experience factor, but Luke Barnwell is right there, and both those guys are getting better. Luke is getting better every day. Watching them out there, you wouldn’t even know they’re competing with each other. They’re trying to help each other.

“It’s been great watching Devin go from quarterback to receiver and just encourage everybody. Devin is a very unselfish guy, and he’s grown up so much. He’s become a great leader for us. He knows he’s gotta be able to play at a bunch of spots, including defense, and he’s been so willing to do that. His leadership and maturity have been impressive.”

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