Preseason games sometimes have weird rules. The schedules fluctuate and change with extremely little notice. They don’t count in the standings.
But even with all that taken into account, that doesn’t mean the games are worthless throwaways used to bide our time until the season actually starts.
Handley and Woodland will both take the field for preseason scrimmages Thursday, and the teams and their coaching staffs will use the first live-game action of the 2023 season to shape their lineups and potentially discover that critical player/position combo that could make a major impact on the season ahead.
So while both schools had teams drop out of their respective jamborees at the last minute, both coaches are looking forward to seeing their teams in real-game action for the first time.
The Tigers will travel to Gadsden Thursday to play in a three-team jamboree with Coosa Christian and Pell City.
“I didn’t have a jamboree, and I’ve got to play a tough game in Valley right off the bat,” said Handley head coach Larry Strain. “I had to have a game and it really didn’t need to be a game that was just a tuneup game if that makes sense, or an easy win. I needed some competition. This is what worked out best for us.”
Coosa Christian is a talented, up-and-coming 1A school that reached the state semifinals a year ago. Pell City is not coming off a good season in Class 6A (1-9 last year), but the Panthers should be much improved and will be one of the biggest stories in the state this year as famed high school coach Rush Propst makes his return to Alabama for the first time since leaving Hoover after the 2007 season.
Strain doesn’t have much on-field history with Propst, but the two coached on the same staff in the 2005 North-South all-star game in December of that year. It was an eye-opening experience for the Handley head coach at that stage of his career.
“I found out I didn’t know much football,” Strain said. “That’s why I went back and went to studying. Really, it changed the way I do things. Everybody can say what they want about coach Propst, but coach Propst is a good football coach. He’s got the record to prove it too. He wins wherever he goes.”
Handley will play two quarters against Coosa Christian, then two quarters against Pell City with no modified rules.
That schedule received a last minute change late last week when Albertville had to drop out because first-year head coach Bert Browne was not familiar with the Alabama rules that determine when teams can play preseason contests.
Albertville played a spring game at the end of the previous school year, so they cannot play any contest – preseason or otherwise – until the week of August 25.
The other three teams – Handley, Coosa Christian and Pell City – did not play in the spring so they can start a week earlier.
Browne, who is coming from a school in Tennessee and is coaching for the first time in Alabama, just wasn’t familiar with those rules until someone pointed them out to him later in the process.
“He got into the thing thinking its completely legal, but he had a spring,” Strain said. “So he had to pull out last week. He didn’t know the rules.”
Those are the peripherals of Thursday’s event, but the on-field story for Handley will also carry some preseason drama, particularly on offense.
Handley has not definitively identified a starting running back to replace all-state senior and current Clemson Tiger Jay Haynes. The Handley team also lost a handful of senior receivers that leave those spots up for grabs starting Thursday also.
Sophomore Jamarcus Daniel will be in the mix after showing some promise in mop-up minutes last season. Handley also has senior E.J. Goss, who replaced Haynes in the starting lineup last year when Haynes was injured. Amajah Williams and Ben Pike could see some carries as well.
As for the receivers, Nemo Askew might be the most explosive option and one of the more experienced. But Makavian Allen, Montrevious Black, Daquavian Slaughter and Koye White will also be in the mix to claim some playing time and some targets from quarterback Cannon Kyles.
While Thursday will help settle some of the debate at those positions, Strain said those battles will almost certainly continue into the regular season.
“I think it’s going be by committee all year long on the running back situation, and it depends on who improves the most at wide receiver,” he said.
Woodland will travel to Beulah for a battle of the Bobcats starting at 6:30. They’ll play two quarters of unmodified football, then two quarters with a running clock.
That jamboree also had a last-minute schedule shuffle when Gaylesville dropped out late in the process.
For a veteran coach like Woodland’s Joel Schrenk, those types of changes aren’t much to be concerned about. It just means you have to shift your focus to who IS going to be there.
“I’m just trying to do a little bit of research on Beulah so we don’t go in there totally blind,” Schrenk said. “I asked him what he’s going to look like, and he said one thing. And then I asked a team from his region last year and he told me something else. So now I’ve grabbed some film and it’s kind of a mix between the two to be honest with you.”
Some position groups remain unsettled for Woodland as well, so Thursday’s contest will be a big night for the offensive line and the linebackers.
“Maybe not as much position battles man for man, but position battles based on who’s going to be the guard or the tackle or the center,” Schrenk said. “Because we want to work multiple kids at multiple place because of injuries or whatever, but we’d kind of like to narrow that down and know which five are in which places.”
Levi Hill, Noah Waites, Sean Noles, Andrew Sanchez and Cade Cross have the inside track to be those first five guys, but the exact spots where they end up will be part of Thursday’s lineup experimentation.
The same can be said for the linebacker rotation, where five players – Tobin Pinkard, Colt Burge, David Noles, Garrett Hendrix and Tye Burge – will shuffle into the three positions.
“We kind of know who the people are, but exactly what spot are they going to be in?” Shrenk said.
“Personnel is pretty much settled, we’ve just got to find the best fit for each kid.”
Woodland is mostly healthy, with the exception being starting receiver Brody Collins, who is close to returning after missing several weeks with a hamstring injury.
“I think he might could go this week, but I’ll probably hold him out for one more,” Schrenk said. “We’ll try to have him ready for Victory [Christian] week one.”
Handley is mostly healthy as well, and as much as settling some of those starting spots, the goal for Thursday night for both teams is to keep that medical report clean going into the season openers.
“Getting nobody hurt is the number one most successful thing,” Strain said. “But you improve more between the first two weeks of playing games than you do all year. And that’s what you want to do. You want to get all those bugs and all those kinks worked out. Get your conditioning right. As much you run them and as much as those kids think they’re in condition, they’re not for that first game.”