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Jackson: Talented freshman class poised to make immediate impact for Red Bay

Head coach Michael Jackson’s first three teams at Red Bay all shared at least a couple of characteristics in common; namely, they were extremely experienced and supremely successful.

The Tigers have amassed an overall record of 28-6 under Jackson, winning 23 regular-season games in a row at one point, claiming two region titles and making three playoff appearances. Amidst all of that success, Red Bay has had only one player—offensive tackle Hunter Tyler in 2014—earn a starting spot as a ninth-grader on the varsity level.

“That number,” Jackson said, “is about to get a lot bigger.”

The Tigers are going young in 2017, with four freshmen (Jalen Vinson, Alex Kennedy, Logan Scott and Cam McKinney) slated to play significant roles on both sides of the ball. Factor in sophomores Caleb Seeley and Dylan Hester on the offensive line and Levi Raper at linebacker, and Red Bay is relying more heavily on young players in key spots than at any point in the past three years.

“This is without a doubt the youngest team I’ve had at Red Bay,” said Jackson, who was the head coach at Buckhorn for nine years and Russellville for three years before taking over the Tiger program in 2014. “We’ll probably have anywhere from six to eight guys in the tenth grade and down who will be starters for us.”

Jackson, however, doesn’t view the youth movement as cause for concern. On the contrary, he’s excited about a huge freshman class that numbers 18 players—several of whom are poised to make an immediate impact. The potential of those young playmakers (many of whom possess size and skill beyond their years) has Jackson convinced that Red Bay is more than capable of reclaiming the Class 2A, Region 8 title despite dressing a total of just 17 seniors and juniors—far fewer than the 25-plus players the Tigers typically have in the top two grades.

“This is the best freshman group of players I’ve been around in a long time,” Jackson said.

The group is led by Vinson, a dynamic and versatile athlete who will back up veteran quarterback Kolby Bragwell while also getting significant snaps at the skill positions on offense and in the secondary. There is also McKinney, a 6’2, 235-pounder who will start both ways at left tackle and inside linebacker. He’ll be joined at inside ‘backer by the 200-pound Kennedy, who will also split reps with the 205-pound Scott on offense at the H-back position. Scott plays both ways, too, projecting as a starter at defensive end opposite junior Elijah Ingle.

Those four freshmen got their first extended taste of varsity action in the spring game at Tishomingo (MS) County in May, helping Red Bay roll to a 21-7 win.

“I was very excited coming out of that game,” said Jackson, whose Tigers went 8-3 last season and finished third in Region 8 behind Lamar County and Sheffield. “I didn’t really know how we’d react once the game started, just because of the youth of the team. We had four freshmen who started on both sides of the ball. But it was a good game. I thought our guys performed really well.”

Of course, it’s not just the new blood that has Jackson looking forward to the 2017 season, which opens with a non-region game at Colbert Heights on August 25. Red Bay returns a solid group of veterans as well, led by Bragwell, Ingle, Tyler, senior tailback Aaron Lewey and senior receiver Max Bullen.

The 6’2, 195-pound Bragwell, a strong-armed junior with dual-threat abilities, is back for his second season as the starting quarterback.

“Kolby has had a great off-season,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the strongest, most athletic kids on the team. We’re expecting big things out of him, both in the passing game and the running game.”

Bragwell will spend a fair amount of time handing the ball off to Lewey, who filled in capably last season when starting tailback Tate Ozbirn was injured. The 160-pound Lewey, slightly built but sturdier than he looks, already has six 100-yard rushing games to his credit—including 150 in the spring game against Tish County.

“Aaron is basically a returning starter, because he played so much last year when Tate was banged up,” Jackson said. “We’re looking for big things out of him.”

The same can be said of Bullen, who might be the best overall athlete on the team. He has the size (6’2, 188), speed (4.6 seconds in the forty) and strength (255 pounds on the bench, 400 on squats) to physically dominate opponents. Bullen, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute of last year’s opener against Colbert Heights, will once again be a favorite target of Bragwell’s at receiver/tight end while taking on a much larger role in the run game.

“He’ll be our jet-sweep guy,” Jackson said of Bullen, who ripped off runs of 40 and 25 yards in the spring game while also hauling in a long touchdown pass from Bragwell. “Max will be a big weapon for us in the passing game and in the run game.”

Bullen heads up an experienced group of pass-catchers that also includes slot receiver Skylar Brazil and outside receivers Luke Rooker and Hayden Murray, all of whom are seniors. Sophomore Colbie King will spell Lewey at tailback while also seeing snaps at slot back.

The 6’3, 320-pound Tyler, a senior and four-year starter, provides a veteran, physical presence at right tackle. He and Ingle, a 240-pound junior left guard, are the returning starters on an offensive line that also includes McKinney at left tackle, the 240-pound Seeley at right guard and the 230-pound Hester at center.

Defensively, Red Bay’s split 4-4 front will be anchored in the middle of the line by senior Joseph Newell (5’10, 240) and junior Devin Nichols (6’3, 315) at tackle, with Ingle and Scott setting the edge at defensive end. Kennedy and McKinney are the only pair of freshmen Jackson can recall starting alongside one another at inside linebacker in his 15 years as a head coach. Raper provides depth at inside linebacker.

Bragwell, who picked off a pass and recovered two fumbles in the spring game, teams with Bullen and Brazil to form a special group of outside linebackers/rovers. Murray and Rooker are the corners, and Vinson can play anywhere in the secondary.

The development of Vinson, in particular, is key to Jackson’s stated goal of building better depth at the skill positions; the coach is determined to avoid a repeat of last year, when injuries to Ozbirn and receivers Kaleb Burroughs and Jesus Kelly left the offense in dire straits.

“The strength of this team is the front,” Jackson said, “but our goal is to get more skill guys involved. That really hurt us last year when we had all those injuries and we didn’t have enough skill guys. That’s something we’ve gotta continue to develop through the rest of the summer and on into the fall.”

Jackson’s offense has always been built around a conservative, run-oriented approach, but things could be streamlined even more this season—at least until the young players get their feet wet.

“All of that youth may mean we won’t be as multiple on offense with our formations and our plays, especially early in the year,” Jackson said. “We have to give those guys time to mature.”

Red Bay had won its first 14 region games under Jackson (and 20 region games in a row overall) before falling 21-20 to eventual region champion Lamar County in Week 6 last season. Jackson believes Region 8 will only be better in 2017.

“I think the region will be more competitive than it’s been in recent years,” he said. “Every team has the capability to make the playoffs. Lamar County and Sulligent are both returning a lot of key guys from last year. Sheffield is always good, and I expect Mars Hill, Phil Campbell and Hatton to all three have the best team they’ve had in three years.”

As the season opener approaches, Jackson draws nearer to a personal milestone that will place him in select company. He’s sitting on 99 career wins as a varsity head coach, tying him with Hamilton’s Rodney Stidham for second among all coaches in the TimesDaily coverage area. Only Muscle Shoals coach Scott Basden (151 career wins with the Trojans, Cordova and Parrish) has more.

Jackson’s 99-68 record in 15 seasons as a head coach is made all the more impressive by the fact that his first two teams at Buckhorn in 2002 and 2003 went a combined 3-17. Since then, Jackson has put together five seasons (at three different schools) with at least nine wins and taken nine teams to the playoffs.

He was reluctant to talk about the possibility of win No. 100, which could come as soon as that August 25 opener at Colbert Heights.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Jackson said.

Following the trip to Tuscumbia, Red Bay’s next two games will also be on the road, at Tharptown and then at Mars Hill in the Region 8 opener. Home games with Hatton and border rival Belmont follow, with an off week set for September 29. The schedule resumes in October with four straight region games at Lamar County, versus Sheffield, at Sulligent and versus Phil Campbell. The Tigers will then wrap up the regular season in early November with a home game against Cherokee.

Red Bay will host Phil Campbell, Hatton and two or three other teams that have yet to be determined for a 7-on-7 camp next Monday, July 10.

“Things always get busier in July,” Jackson said. “We’ve been working three days a week since school ended. It’s been a good summer, but things will pick up in July.”

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