Under first-year head coach, Mandarin prepares for No. 4 Creekside in Game of the Week

Mandarin quarterback Tramell Jones picked up where he left off as a freshman, leading the Mustangs to a 3-1 start in 2022. (2021 WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The first year at a new job can be a learning experience. But it doesn’t mean there have to be struggles.

After four years as the offensive coordinator at Mandarin, Toby Bullock has stepped into the head coaching position and guided the Mustangs to a 3-1 start and into our News4JAX Super 10 poll.

Mandarin, ranked eighth this week after a 30-0 shutout of Atlantic Coast in the battle for the Principal’s Cup, hosts No. 4 Creekside in our Football Friday game of the week.

Bullock has been a head coach before. He guided Wolfson for three seasons. But the expectations at Mandarin are much different than they are at Wolfson. After winning a state title in 2018 with Bullock serving as the offensive coordinator for then-head coach Bobby Ramsay, Mandarin knows it has the chance to compete for championships given the right circumstances.

“It’s been fun,” Bullock, an Englewood alum, said. “It’s something that I, you know, had hoped for that I’d get an opportunity to get. And it’s been a good time, you know, showing the kids what my expectations are gonna be, seeing what their expectations are, and seeing how we can build a culture that delivers on both.

The Mustangs offense is led by quarterback Tramell Jones, who is completing 63% of his passes with nine touchdowns and no interceptions through four games. Last season as a freshman, Jones started eight games, throwing 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s already getting attention from Florida, Florida State and Georgia Tech among others.

“He takes his coaching on the field. Probably the best compliment he got from Jamie Ffrench to one of our receivers is that he says, ‘Coach just tell him to throw me the ball,’ because he’s always going to do what he’s supposed to do,” Bullock said. “And as a coach, that’s the greatest compliment you can have if the guy that has his ball in his hands every time, he’s gonna do what he is taught to do.”

Jones’ favorite target is fellow-sophomore Ffrench, who leads the team with 19 receptions for 311 yards and four touchdowns. The two have developed a connection that has resulted in some big plays on the field. But Ffrench is complimented by senior Kieren Jackson, who sees this year’s team as all being on the same page.

“Nothing really new from last year. It’s just practicing. We get better at what we’re doing by communication,” Jackson said. “The last four weeks I want to say everybody’s been outside looking for Mandarin, trying to beat Mandarin. Everybody is willing.”

The Mandarin defense has allowed only six points the past two weeks, including a 28-6 victory over Riverside. The Mustangs have made a habit of harassing the opposing quarterback. Through four games, the defense has totaled 26.5 sacks, including 12 in the season opener against Fletcher.

“I love this team. This team is the best,” defensive captain Carmello Murphy said. “These last three years, I had a good team. But this team is different. We just focus and build up to coach’s expectations. Plus-two on every play, every day, in school and on the field.”

The only loss on the Mandarin schedule so far was a 27-20 loss at Bolles on Sept. 2. It’s a game the Mustangs could have won. But playing a ranked team proved something to the team and taught lessons that could be called upon Friday against Creekside, a team who beat Mandarin 20-16 last year in the Knights’ homecoming game.

“Creekside brings a lot of energy. We bring a lot of energy,” Bullock said. “Football games at Mandarin are special. Our administration, led by our AD Brian Rado, does a great job, week in and week out, making football something that’s an event that kids want to be at. And then you add someone like Creekside who makes their football games an event. It should be something special.”