‘Time to roll’: Spring football cranks up as area teams hit the field

Monday was the first day for spring practices for most teams in the state

Mandarin football coach Toby Bullock watches during spring football workouts on Monday, the first of practice in Duval County. (Justin Barney, News4JAX)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s go time in high school football.

Monday marked the official first day of spring practice around the state for high school programs. While some teams had their launch a week earlier due to FHSAA rules that permitted an April 24 start due to how the end-of-year calendar fell in those counties, May 1 was the date circled on the calendar for everyone.

For schools embarking on the traditional start day, Monday was the first time on the field since the end of last season. Others had Monday circled because it was the day that they could put the full pads on and start the contact.

Mandarin’s Toby Bullock said he appreciated the regular May 1 start for a few reasons, the biggest of which was some late arriving helmets.

“When you’re having to do paperwork and all that stuff, actually the couple of days [later start] is kind of nice,” he said. “Plus, our helmets were late getting back in so we would have been upset last week.”

Teams are permitted 20 practice sessions, which usually include a game or a scrimmage at the end.

The main theme — football is back ... for a few weeks at least. The limited reps mean maximizing those practices as much as possible.

“Try to get every rep 100%. We come out here and we try to get better every day,” said Mandarin cornerback AJ Belgrave-Shorter, a senior who is committed to Penn State. “Out beat our opponent. Just focus on ourselves, make ourselves get 100% better every single day.”

It was a windy start, with gusts blowing gear around at Mandarin. Bullock and the Mustangs jogged out on the field mid-afternoon for the first official day. It was a relatively light day of getting acclimated to the field.

“Lot of anticipation. Boys ready to go. We’re ready to go as coaches,” he said. “Fields lined. Balls are pumped up. Time to roll.”

Baker County, which is one of few area counties which were permitted to start a week earlier due to when its school year ends, was in full pads for the first time on Monday. Coach Kevin Mays said that players were pumped to start with the physical Oklahoma drill.

“We always start with the drill, like Oklahoma-type drill, after we teach tackling and stuff, just to get them excited,” Mays said. “And they could do that for an hour if I’d let them, but I don’t know, that’s not helping us a ton. We get to see who’s fired up and wants to play.”

The new coaches

There are a lot of them. Nearly 20 schools have different head coaches than the ones who they finished the last season with. That includes programs like Bartram Trail and Keystone Heights, schools who saw Darrell Sutherland and Chuck Dickinson step down in the offseason.

With 24 years of leading the Indians, Dickinson was the area’s second-longest tenured public school head coach in the area behind First Coast’s Marty Lee. Sutherland was the only coach in Bartram Trail history after building the program from its inception in 2000. Cory Johns replaced Sutherland and Steve Reynolds replaced Dickinson.

Among some of the other bigger programs with new coaches are: Atlantic Coast (Step Durham), Columbia (Brian Allen), Englewood (Kevin Johnson), Fleming Island (Chad Parker), Menendez (Anthony Rivers), Oakleaf (Christopher Foy), Tocoi Creek (Zach Harbison), West Nassau (Gunnar Cox) and Wolfson (Jermaine Wilson).

The top recruits

It’s a leaner year in terms of mega recruits in the area in the Class of 2024. Mandarin corner Jon Mitchell (Penn State), Columbia receiver Camdon Frier (Florida State) and Trinity Christian quarterback Colin Hurley (LSU) are the only area players ranked in the ESPN 300. The Class of 2025 is deeper, with Charlton County tight end Elyiss Williams (Georgia), Mandarin receiver Jaime Ffrench and Raines offensive tackle Solomon Thomas both top 35 national recruits. Factor in Mandarin safety Hylton Stubbs and that’s four players in the top 65 nationally, according to 247 Sports.

Blanked in the title game

For the first time since the 2000 season and just the second since 1984, the area didn’t have a team play for in a state championship game. That was an enormous letdown in the first year of the Metro-Suburban setup. Was that an aberration or will that become a norm?

The area has done well in getting at least one of the private school powers (Bolles, Trinity Christian, University Christian) in the championship game on a regular basis. At least one of those schools has appeared in a title game all but six times since 1998 (misses in 2000-01, 2005, ‘07, 2018 and 2022). Like we saw last season, the Metro path makes that a greater challenge, especially with Trinity and UC now packaged together in 1M.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.