E.A. Sports Today

Oxford: Life goes on

Retooling defense a bigger concern for Yellow Jackets than life without Roc Thomas

“You’re going to miss him, but I know we can get by without him. I hate he’s gone and he’s going to do good down at Auburn, but there’s still life. Life without Roc is still life.”

–Ryan Herring

Editor’s note: This is another in the series of previews on Calhoun County high school football teams.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD — Everywhere Ryan Herring has gone since May he has been followed by one solitary question.

Whether he runs into people at the store, at the beach, even in conversations with other coaches inside and outside of his own school, it’s been the same.

How are you going to get along without Roc (Thomas), they all ask.

Herring, in the second year of his dream job as Oxford’s football coach, is here to say the cupboard is not empty. And he reminds those who’ll listen there were several games last year the Yellow Jackets didn’t have the eventual five-star Mr. Football Auburn signee to carry the load.

“Life goes on — or the head coach does,” he said.

When Thomas was on, he was virtually unstoppable. He rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. There were two game-day performances — against Pell City and Spain Park — Herring doesn’t think he’ll see the likes of again in his lifetime. But there also were five other games when Thomas was hurt or sidelined and the Jackets had to make do.

Through all that they went 9-3, which Herring considered “great” after they were spanked by Carrollton in his debut and lost their first two games, and have most of that bunch back who moved the ball when Thomas couldn’t. Piecing together a new defense that returns only one starter seems of greater concern than replacing one game-changing running back.

“You’re going to miss him, but I know we can get by without him,” Herring said. “I hate he’s gone and he’s going to do good down at Auburn, but there’s still life. Life without Roc is still life.”

Don’t feel sorry for the Yellow Jackets’ offense. In a lot of ways, it is farther along than it was at this point a year ago.

For starters, it has had one full year under Herring and his staff. And it really only lost its lead back and blocking back. To offset the departure of Thomas, they’ve moved another Thomas – hard-hitting safety Thomas Rudolph – to running back and return Justin Smith, who got the reps when Roc was down or out.

In addition, it returns quarterback Ty Webber for his third year as the starter, receivers Tre Gamble and Jacob Cook, and a veteran offensive line. Webber accounted for 2,200 all-purpose yards and a 21-5 touchdown-to-interception passing ratio last year. Herring called Gamble “the best receiver in Alabama,” but Cook drew all the raves at the 7-on-7 camp the Jackets went to in Georgia; they combined for 89 catches, 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.

“Offensively we’re going to be a lot farther along Game One than we were last year,” Herring said. “You’re basically missing your feature running back and blocking back, but everything else I think we can be better. I’m really not worried right now.”

The concerns are on defense, where Herring said the Jackets will have to play better this year to go farther in the playoffs, which for the next two years at least will run through the southern regions of the state. Among the teams in their new 6A Region 3 is preseason No. 5 Opelika, a team with five Division I commitments on defense.

The Jackets will remain in the 3-4, but 10 of their 11 starters will be new. Outside linebacker Tanner Lloyd is the only holdover. The replacements will come from players who weren’t on the team last year, 10th-graders who didn’t practice with the varsity last year and backups who didn’t play much, but they all have a chance to make the unit more athletic, particularly on the perimeter.

Herring called it “one of the neatest situations” he’s ever seen.

“I’m ready to see how we’re going to be this year,” he said. “The community, they’re wondering how life post-Roc is going to be and I love Roc, but I think life’s gonna be great. Life’s gonna go on.”

Al Muskewitz is Content Editor/Senior Writer of East Alabama Sports Today. He can be reached at musky@wrightmediacorp.com and followed on Twitter @easportstoday1.

Aug. 21 — at Southside, Gadsden
Aug. 29 — at Gadsden City
Sep. 5 — Valley
Sep. 12 — at Chilton County
Sep. 19 — Opelika
Sep. 26 — Vestavia Hills
Oct. 3 — at Benjamin Russell
Oct. 10 — Pell City
Oct. 17
Oct. 24 — at Chelsea
Oct. 31 — Decatur

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