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Leathers, Wildcats have unfinished business in 2017

Taylor Leathers is a man who appreciates a good motto.

“I’m a big slogan guy,” said Leathers, now in his second year as head football coach at Colbert Heights.

The Wildcats’ slogan for 2017 began to take shape last fall, on a late-October Friday night in Caddo, a small community along Highway 24 between Decatur and Moulton. Trailing East Lawrence High School in the fourth quarter of the final regular season game, the ‘Cats—poised to clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Eagles—were driving for the go-ahead score when they found themselves facing a critical fourth-and-short near midfield.

For Leathers, a 2003 graduate of Winfield High School who walked on at UNA and ultimately earned a scholarship as a defensive lineman, it was the exact situation that exemplifies everything he loves about the game of football.

“Football is a physical game,” Leathers said. “It’s meant to be played that way. That’s why you have all that gear. Football is the only game that allows a kid like me, when I was growing up—not very talented, not the best athlete—to succeed, where good, old-fashioned will power counts for something. It’s not always like that in other sports.

“You can’t just use will power and gumption and get a mad on and make more baskets or shoot the ball better. You can’t just grit your teeth in baseball and get more hits. Football is a battle of wills, a battle of toughness, and I like to play it that way.”

And that’s why what happened next on that do-or-die, season-defining play at Caddo has haunted Leathers for the last eight months. Almost immediately after arriving on The Mountain following a four-year stint as an assistant at Lexington, Leathers set his sights on getting Colbert Heights back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. On the verge of achieving that goal, the Wildcats fell excruciatingly short.

They failed to convert the fourth-down play, and the Eagles (who came into the game with just one win on the season) prevailed 30-24. The loss, coupled with West Morgan’s stunning upset of Lexington that same night, left Colbert Heights on the outside looking in for the fifth consecutive postseason.

“The thing that haunts me the most about that [East Lawrence] game is, we were driving late in the game with a chance to tie or take the lead,” Leathers said last week. “We had a fourth-and-one right around midfield, and we failed to get the first down by about an inch. I’ve taken that clip and put it on Twitter for our guys to see—we’re an inch away from fulfilling our goals.

“All of our goals are player-set. We meet before the season starts in fall camp and say, ‘Okay, what are our goals?’ Last year one of those team goals, aside from being competitive in every game and just general things like playing hard and giving great effort, was to go to the playoffs. And we were an inch away.”

Rather than forgetting that fourth-down failure, Leathers bottled it to use as fuel going forward. Last year’s regret would become this year’s rallying cry. A new slogan was born.

“Our slogan for this year is, Get that inch. It’s just a reminder for us to take care of business the way it should have been handled last year,” said Leathers, whose team finished the 2016 season 4-6 overall and 3-4 in Class 3A, Region 8. “That’s definitely our driving force. It’s disappointing we weren’t in. We know what happened at Lexington—they fumbled five times, and West Morgan beat them. But, for me as a coach, the lesson I’m trying to instill in our players is that if we don’t take care of our own business, we don’t deserve to be there. We were unable to take care of our business that night, and as fate would have it West Morgan—a team we beat by two touchdowns—takes our playoff spot.

“That is something we have used ever since the final game. We got a week off, and then we started back in the weight room last winter with our off-season program, pressing our juniors to become seniors. That’s something that comes out of our mouth a lot—we’ve got unfinished business. That’s the attitude I’m trying to instill in our kids. We’re playing this season with unfinished business.”

The sour taste of watching West Morgan (a team Colbert Heights had beaten 42-27 in early September) steal the fourth and final playoff spot in Region 8 has pushed the Wildcats through the winter months, through two weeks of spring football in May and through grueling summer workouts. Motivation, Leathers said, hasn’t been an issue.

“I’m very pleased with our work ethic,” he said. “With this being my second summer, I’ve really had the opportunity to compare this year and how things go each day with last year, and I think we’ve really improved as far as our level of intensity when we work. There’s definitely a difference in the purpose of how we lift and the attitude we have and the attendance we’ve had for summer workouts. We’re not where I want us to be, but we’re making progress there. We haven’t arrived by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re on the right track.

“My goal here hasn’t changed. I want Colbert Heights to be a competitive postseason team. We were really driven to return Colbert Heights to the playoffs last year, and that goal remains the same. We got as close as you could possibly get without getting in.”

Thirteen seniors are gone from last year’s team, including standout defensive linemen Carson Peoples and Justin Roberts, big receivers Ricky Thomas and Austin Davis, and two-way stalwart J.J. Alexander, a bruising fullback and linebacker. This year’s 18-member senior class is even larger, but Leathers pointed out that many of those players are still adjusting to more prominent roles.

“We lost quite a few guys on both sides of the ball,” he said. “Some of the guys stepping in for them are older guys, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have a lot of [game] experience.”

The Wildcats do, however, have a few established veterans they can lean on, starting with dynamic dual-threat quarterback Kevin Shaw, who rushed for more than 700 yards and 12 touchdowns last season on his way to earning Offensive MVP honors as a junior.

“I have very high expectations for his performance this year at quarterback,” Leathers said of Shaw, whose 2016 highlights included 129 yards rushing on just 11 carries in a 47-26 win over Phil Campbell. “It’s his second year as the starting quarterback, so he’s played the games and had the chance to get a season under his belt. We should see a more polished quarterback out of Kevin. He’s still progressing as a passer, and he’s always been a great runner. He’s a dual-threat guy. We expect a lot out of him.”

Shaw passed for more than 700 yards last season as well, but much of that production came courtesy of Thomas and Davis, who combined for 50-plus catches.

“Ricky and Austin were six-four, six-five,” Leathers said. “We don’t have big, tall receivers this time. We just don’t have those guys. We don’t have a guy like that in the house. The wide receiver position will be by committee. We’ve got some kids who are gonna rotate, and we’ll see who ends up being a playmaker.”

There is more clarity in the backfield, where senior fullback Dylan Chandler takes over Alexander’s role as the featured runner (along with Shaw) in the ground game. Senior Chandler Willis will also get carries, and Leathers praised senior Bevin Foust for his work ethic. Foust, who played H-back last year, will play more tight end this season.

The Wildcats are now entering year number two of their transition from the Air Raid spread attack they ran for years under former head coaches Chip Lindsey (now the offensive coordinator at Auburn University) and Ivan Denton to the more physical, run-heavy offense Leathers favored during his time as Lexington’s offensive coordinator.

“As best we could, we paired the spread they’d been using since Chip Lindsey was here with that run-first offense, that physical brand of football we wanted to play,” Leathers said of last year’s team, which averaged 23.5 points per game. “We’re gonna build on that. We’re not gonna be one-dimensional, but at the same time we lost our big receiving threats.

“We’re gonna play a physical, hard-nosed brand of football. We really want to balance our carries with our backs. We’re gonna utilize the option game and try to balance out our carries.”

Shaw, Chandler and company will be operating behind an experienced offensive line that returns four key members—senior tackle Cain Phifer, senior guards Chason Scott and Brannon Bradford, and junior Tyler Tubbs, who saw a lot of snaps last season as a sophomore at both guard and tackle.

Defensively, the contributions of Peoples and Roberts will be sorely missed up front. Tubbs figures to see plenty of snaps at defensive end, but Leathers hopes the Wildcats won’t have to rely on too many guys to play both ways.

“We’re gonna try to play as many one-way players as we can,” he said. “We’re in a situation this year where I think we’ll be able to play more one-way guys than we did last year. For a small 3A school, we’ve got the ability to play more one-way players than I’ve seen just about anywhere else I’ve been.”

Questions must be answered along the line, but there is more experience at linebacker, where seniors Korey Saint and Brendan Borden both return. Leathers said that improved play in the secondary has been a focus all throughout the off-season. Shaw brings a play-making presence to the back end, where he’ll play safety in certain situations.

With the start of fall camp less than a month away, Leathers and his staff have made sure that the memory of last year’s painful finish is still fresh on his players’ minds. All they have to do is go back and watch the fourth-down clip on Twitter again or glance at the wristbands Leathers had designed for them to wear, the ones bearing the new team slogan.

For Leathers, though, getting that inch is about so much more than merely converting a fourth down, winning a game or even making the playoffs. Coaches can use football as a vehicle to teach the value of things like toughness and teamwork, and that opportunity to mold young men is why Leathers does what he does.

“Trying to instill all of that, to me, is why I coach—because all of that is what they need in life,” he said. “We talk about not being results-oriented. When these guys get out of here and get into their lives and I see them some time down the road, it’s not gonna be about, ‘Man, you remember that year we won seven games, or eight games?' or whatever. What I want to know is, did the boy become a man? Did the young man mature and become tough? Are they able to handle those situations life throws at them?

“That’s why we play the game the way we do, with that physical style, that tough style. When you play it that way, you get more of those life lessons you can take with you. Not that I want these guys to grow up and be cage-fighters. But out there in the real world, you might lose your job, or things might not go well at work. They might not go well at home. Being married is tough, being a parent is tough. I want these guys to be able to pull from what we’re doing now and say, ‘If I can make it through Coach Leathers’ practice, I can make it through this.’”

In the short term, Colbert Heights will open the 2017 season on August 25 at home against Red Bay, which has won the last six meetings with the Wildcats. Red Bay coach Michael Jackson enters this season just one win shy of 100 for his career as a varsity head coach.

“He’ll have to get that against somebody else,” Leathers said with a laugh. “I’ve gotten to know Coach Jackson a little bit. That’s a great accomplishment for him. We just don’t want him to get it at Amos Mitchell Stadium.”

Week 2 will bring another non-region game against Phil Campbell, and then the Wildcats will dive into region play against Clements and continue their quest to get that inch and earn a playoff spot for the first time in six years. With perennial powers Lauderdale County, Colbert County and Lexington still lurking and teams like West Morgan rapidly improving, Leathers knows that cracking the top half of Region 8 will be no small feat.

“Clements was much-improved last year, and they’ll continue to get better,” he said. “I look for West Morgan to be one of the top teams in the region. They’ve really improved. Our schedule gets tougher as we go along, but we’ve got some tough games right off the bat, too. We’ll have to play well each week throughout the season. There’s not really a stretch where we can take a breath.

“It’ll be a battle. There are no guarantees in any shape, form or fashion. In a lot of ways it will be harder to get there this year than last year.”

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