Sherwood receiver Parker Hatcher is the lone senior for the Eagles, who open their season Thursday at Trinity Christian with a roster of just 19 players. (John Millikan)
ALBANY — Construction barrels turned into makeshift defensive linemen and a trio of coaches stepped in as temporary linebackers during a recent Sherwood football practice.
The Eagles opened the afternoon practice with offensive drills, a routine that left nobody to line up on the defensive side — nobody except those barrels and coaches.
But with a thin roster of just 19 players, finding make-do defenders during practice might just be the beginning of the worries for the Eagles and third-year head coach Otis Covington.
“It makes it tough,” Covington said. “Obviously when you are playing the teams that we are going to be playing, you worry about the second half of games and whether or not our kids can last and endure. That’s just something we have to stand up and face.”
Luckily for Covington, he has a roster full of kids willing to do just that.
“I tell the guys when they get tired, that if you really want to play football on this team you have to have heart,” junior safety Kenny Brown said. “This year, we have heart.”
Brown, who led the Eagles with 83 tackles last season, is the voice and the heart of the Sherwood defense and because of the team’s small numbers plays an unlikely combination of positions: free safety on defense and lineman on offense.
He exemplifies the Sherwood football player this season — a player who is asked to do it all.
“It’s all about getting the kids to believe in what we are doing and believe that they can,” Covington said. “When you have small numbers, the first thing that you have is a psychological disadvantage when you hit the field. But the kids that we have right now understand that once you step on the field it’s 11 vs. 11. They are buying into that.”
Sherwood lost eight seniors from last year’s team, but their biggest hit might have come during the summer when two-year starting quarterback Dalton Todd transferred to Terrell Academy.
Todd, who threw for 1,478 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions and ran for 363 yards and five touchdowns last season, left Covington stunned when he bolted for Sherwood’s GISA Region 3-AA rival.
“I was totally blindsided by it,” Covington said. “I went out of town and came back, and he was gone. He was unenrolled.
“It was a thing about numbers. No one really talked to me directly about it, so it’s hard for me to comment about the true nature of it. But I guess he left because he thought our numbers were going to be too small.”
There were whispers among the players during summer workouts that Sherwood wasn’t even going to be able to field a team this season.
“Some people doubted that we would even have a team this year,” Brown said. “But then later in the summer they started to buy into the team when we had more people coming out.”
Last year’s backup QB Dylan Evans decided to return to the team, and Dougherty QB Chris Thomas transferred to Sherwood in the summer, giving the Eagles options under center and returning some hope to the team.
“It was a blessing,” Covington said about Thomas joining the Eagles.
Both quarterbacks played in Sherwood’s 31-7 scrimmage victory against Calvary Christian, and earlier this week Covington said the starter for Thursday’s season opener against Trinity Christian was yet to be decided.
“Both of them played well Friday night,” Covington said. “It was kind of tough to get a total picture of either of them because it was raining. Obviously we didn’t throw the ball too much and tried to focus more on the running game.”
And it’s the running game where Sherwood could make some serious noise this season. Sophomore Chaz Griffin, last year’s starter at the position, returns and is joined by Albany High transfer Keyshawn Powell. Behind Griffin and Powell — a pair that Griffin refers to as “lightning and lightning” — the Eagles rushed for 324 yards against Calvary Christian. Griffin led the way with 142 yards and three scores, and Powell added 68 yards and two TDs.
“It’s going to be hard to keep both of us from scoring,” Griffin said.
“Our plan was to be balanced (on offense), but after we ran the ball like we did Friday it’s easy to say, ‘Hey, let’s be run first,’ ” Covington said. “We have two explosive running backs.”
If the Eagles do decide to air it out, Parker Hatcher, the team’s only senior, Ben Williams and Greg Elder will be key receivers.
Covington is entering his third year with the team, and after a 1-9 campaign his rookie season, he led Sherwood to a 3-8 record last year, which included a 3-2 start to the season before losing the final six games.
“We wore out a lot, particularly against the bigger teams,” Covington said. “During the first half of the year we were OK and able to do what we needed to do, but we hit that state championship row of Deerfield, Valwood and Westwood back-to-back-to-back. During that stretch we didn’t necessarily get physically beat up, but we were physiologically beat up.”
The Eagles have that same trio of giants three straight weeks this season, but this time they play all of them at home.
And this time they have heart.
“This year’s team has way more heart than last year’s team,” Brown said. “I believe we can go farther than last year’s team. This year could be special.”
NOTES: The Eagles will open their season at Trinity Christian in Dublin on Thursday instead of Friday because the host Crusaders are debuting renovations to their stadium and didn’t want their festivities to conflict with other area prep football season openers. … Starting linebacker Grant Osteen also left the team during the summer after moving from the area. Last season, Osteen had 56 tackles and one interception. … The Eagles’ home opener is Aug. 30 against Tiftarea Academy in a rematch of last season’s 39-25 win for Sherwood.