And he didn’t have pads on.
It was head coach Jeff Smith.
Smith, a hulking figure with a resonating voice to match, has guided the Panthers to a 5-1 (3-1 in Class 3A, Region 3) start in just his second season since leaving Class 5A Hueytown to return to his alma mater. One moment, he’s lined up alongside an offensive lineman, touching him to make sure his hips and feet are in perfect position. The next, he’s between the linebackers, making sure they’re reading their keys right.
“As a coach, I want to do everything I can to give them an opportunity to be successful,” Smith said. “For some, you do it with a pat on the back. Others need a kick in the butt. I treat them all fairly and I treat them all the same but I motivate each and every one of them differently.”
Smith’s hands-on, in-your face brand of tender loving care has helped resurrect a program that was all but dead, following a pair of 1-9 seasons in 2007 and 2008 before going 5-5 last year when the Panthers earned a playoff berth. This year they were placed in a region that includes Handley, Leeds and Clay County, all of whom won region titles last year.
Wellborn has an opportunity to put everyone on notice that the Panther black is back in full effect when they travel to take on perennial power Clay County (3-3, 2-2) at 7 p.m. tonight in Ashland.
“They’ve got six state championships and they were 55-0 at one point. We’re playing at their home,” offensive tackle Landon Johnson said of Clay County. “It’s going to be a tough environment. We definitely feel like the under dogs even though we’re 5-1.
“We feel like if we win, we’d get respect across the state. It’d put the program back where it used to be.”
Senior defensive end Shawn Boshell described Smith as a “hard-nosed coach”. He and his teammates were ready for change when Smith arrived atop The Hill.
“We were tired of being everyone’s homecoming game,” he said.
Senior running back Delrickus Rhoden was among the first players Smith contacted when he got the job. Rhoden, a preseason Dandy Dozen selection, was named The Star’s Offensive Player of the Week for Week 6 after rushing for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries in Wellborn’s 44-0 win against Buelah last Friday. He leads the Panthers with 745 yards rushing and 10 scores on 92 carries through six games.
Rhoden said Smith’s will to win and genuine care for his players won the team over, adding, with a smile, the coach takes some getting used to if you’ve never been around him.
“He’s going to do what it takes for you to realize that what you’re doing isn’t best and what he’s telling you is,” Rhoden said. “Coach Smith is willing to do anything for any of us. He wants us to be good people. If you get in trouble in school, he’s going to make you pay for it. That’s why no one gets in trouble.”
But Smith hasn’t done it alone.
Smith said his staff has been shorthanded since he took the post and praised the contributions of assistants Allen Russell, Toby Morgan, Jordan Angle and Jake Mayfield for their tireless work in the program’s extreme makeover.
Defense has been a staple for the Panthers, having limited their opponents to 12.5 points in their five wins.
Even at the tail end of a more than two-hour practice, you could still see Smith pacing through drills and kneeling to check things off a sheet of paper ripped from a yellow legal pad. You could also hear him say, “We’ve had a good practice. But the last three for four plays we’ve been bad. Finish good.”
Brandon Woodard recalled the first time Smith got onto him in practice.
“Sometimes it makes you mad but it’s always motivating.”
And it definitely gets the job done.
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.