E.A. Sports Today


Until Jackson can reward those who gave him a chance, the first-year Anniston coach’s most important superpower is confidence to weather ‘noise’

Editor’s note: High school football practice has started, and East Alabama Sports Today editor Joe Medley has begun his annual round of preseason visits to football-playing schools in Calhoun County. Check out East Alabama Sports Today’s Facebook page for live interviews each weekday leading up to season openers. Columns and key facts will also appear at EASportsToday.com and our social-media platforms.

Months afforded Rico Jackson time to move beyond first impressions with his Anniston players and bosses who hired him. Fans?

Joe Medley, Editor

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, especially those who didn’t get their way in the search that brought Jackson to Anniston, note the quiet calm. Note Jackson’s comfort in his own skin.

Life in a brutal Class 4A region and 4A south playoff bracket will challenge him like it challenges other coaches, but he wears noise like the comfortable Navy blue AHSAA pullover he wore to Monday’s preseason interview.

It comes with the experience of having coached five other programs before Anniston.

“Just ignore the noise,” Jackson said. “There was a lot of noise coming in. It doesn’t bother me. It never has bothered me, but just experience. Put your head down and go to work.

“I know my value. I know my worth. I know what I can do.”

It just might be his most important superpower until he has a chance to produce on the field, and reasons to think Jackson’s first Anniston team will help him mute noise abound.

Yes, Kamron Sandlin and Roq Montgomery, the Alabama signee formerly known as Ryqueze McElderry, graduated. So did Jaylon Cunningham.

Stars graduate, and Anniston had a few while going 11-1 and playing in a classic, de facto state championship game against eventual champion Andalusia in 2022.

Yes, Malachi and Hezekiah Harris and Grayshaun Swain followed Rico White to Mae Jemison. Transfers equal doing business in high school sports anymore, especially after a coaching change, but the door swung both ways. 

Former Saks quarterback Gavin Doss joined the “Dawgs on 3” huddle. So did former Oxford running back Caleb Wynn and receiver Ahmad Kelly and former Alexandria receiver/defensive back T.K. Downie.

All-Calhoun County running back Malachi Taylor returns, so Jackson has skill to array around Auburn commit Jayden Lewis, whose offensive role will expand to match his load on defense and special teams this season.

There’s still talent at Anniston, and count Lewis highest among leaders who gave Jackson a chance.

There’s still talent surrounding Anniston, and Doss, Downie, Kelly and Wynn gave Jackson a chance.

As for fans, Anniston has always had a tough barber shop. Just ask Eddie Bullock, and he’s a lifelong Bulldog.

Toss in long-held grievances, perceived or real, that flow from local politics, and devils in the details miss reflexive detractors. Those who wanted another coach harp on Jackson’s 58-59 record elsewhere as the big see-there. They forget White’s 30-72 record before he more than doubled his career win total at Anniston. 

As soon as the clock hit zeroes on the Andalusia game, some fans forgot White won Anniston’s first region title since 2011 and oversaw the Bulldogs’ deepest playoff runs since 2010 and 2011. 

When talent flows at Anniston, coaches who know what to do with it do well.

When Jackson had enough talent at Aliceville, he got it to the Super 7.

He’s content to let time vindicate him to those who think he needs vindication. He’s thankful for the chance.

“A lot of times, young black coaches don’t get afforded the job that others get afforded, so we have to build it from the ground up,” he said. “I was blessed to obtain Anniston. I know the blessing that I have in my hands, and I’m just going to continue to work.”

Bulldog facts

Things to know about Anniston football heading into the 2023 season:

—Rico Jackson enters his first season as Anniston’s head coach. He’s 58-59 in 11 seasons as a head coach at Tarrant, Murphy, Escambia County, Aliceville and Fairfield.

—The Bulldogs went 11-1 in 2022, winning Class 4A, Region 4 and reaching the state quarterfinals, where they lost 35-28 to eventual state champion Andalusia.

—Key graduation losses from 2022 include All-State QB Kamron Sandlin, who signed as an athlete with South Carolina, and Class 4A lineman of the year Roq Montgomery (who changed his name from Ryqueze McElderry). All-State wide receiver Jaylon Cunningham also graduated. All-State defensive end Hezekiah Harris, brother and All-Calhoun County offensive lineman Malachi Harris and All-State defensive linebacker Grayshaun Swain followed former Anniston coach Rico White to Mae Jemison.

—Returning All-State and/or All-Calhoun County picks: ATH Jayden Lewis, DB Jaden Dobbins, RB Malachi Taylor, DB Love Kirby, LB Kevontae Johnson, TE Khamar Holder, DL Collin Wansart, DL Que Elston.

—Players to watch: QB Gavin Doss, who led Saks to the playoffs in 2022, transferred to Anniston, as did Oxford RB Caleb Wynn, Oxford WR Ahmad Kelly and Alexandria WR/DB T.K. Downie. All  were All-Calhoun County players.

—Joe Medley

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