Westover RB Shannon Saunders played just five games last year due to an injury, and that left the 6-foot-3, 218-pound rising senior hungrier than ever to return this year and not just lead the Patriots in rushing and touchdowns — but break former teammate Dalviness Greene’s records set before graduating to Albany State. Saunders and Westover open the season Friday at Tift County (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)

Westover RB Shannon Saunders played just five games last year due to an injury, and that left the 6-foot-3, 218-pound rising senior hungrier than ever to return this year and not just lead the Patriots in rushing and touchdowns — but break former teammate Dalviness Greene’s records set before graduating to Albany State. Saunders and Westover open the season Friday at Tift County (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)

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Octavia Jones

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Ta’Keevian Harris

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Westover star defensive lineman Trent Thompson, a 6-foot-3, 292-pound bruiser, enters the season with countless D-I interest, including from Georgia — which he calls his “No. 1 right now” — and Florida and Florida State. (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)

ALBANY — Something’s happening at Westover. And it isn’t an unexplained mystery.

There’s a culture growing. Actually, it’s already established. That happened one year ago. Or maybe it was three. That part’s debatable.

“We’ve still never won a region championship (in 44 years of football at Westover), and last year’s runner-up trophy was the first time that had ever happened,” said Patriots third-year head coach Octavia Jones, who made changes across the board when he arrived three years ago to a losing program and frustrated fan base that was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

“We’ll take it … for now. But we’re out for a lot more. A whole lot more.”

Namely becoming program pioneers.

Consider for a moment that Westover football, before last year’s 8-4 season, had posted just four overall winning records in school history — a history that dates back to 1969. Jones had never been a head football coach before getting the job with the Patriots in 2010, and while he didn’t bring an overly intimate knowledge of Xs and Os with him initially, he brought something far more valuable: the ability to turn whatever he touched into a winner. And if Westover, at worst, finishes 6-4 this season, he will have already posted the first back-to-back winning seasons in nearly a half-century of Patriots football.

Go ahead and bet the farm now, say the players: Westover won’t be finishing its 2013 campaign 6-4, or 7-3, or even 8-2.

“Coach Jones knows what he’s doing,” towering Division I defensive line recruit Trenton Thompson said of his coach, who won three state titles at city rival Monroe in track & field before officially making a headfirst leap of faith into Westover football. “He’s got everyone on the same page out here, and when you got that, it’s hard to stop. We’re shooting for it all this year. It starts with getting that ‘W’ at Tift on Friday and it ends in the (Georgia) Dome.”

That goal’s evident by the discipline and organization with which Class AAAA Westover, which opens the season Friday at the Class AAAAAA Blue Devils, conducts itself during a normal practice. Everyone, at nearly every stage, is somehow involved. If you’re not in the drill, you’re expected — no, make that mandated — by Jones and his staff to be making mental notes. And if you do find yourself off to the side for even a few minutes, it’s not long before one of Jones’ many assistants will break off with players alone or in groups.

They give pep-talks. Or lectures. And sometimes pop-quizzes on plays and formations.

“Nope, that’s only five. I said name all six,” one of the coaches tells a player as they walk and talk. “Start over.”

All the while, nearby on the sidelines, stands the Westover JV and ninth-grade teams, watching every bit of the varsity practice from a knee, sucked in like a good movie none of them want to miss.

Even more impressive? Their practice ended an hour ago.

“We’re really trying to model our practices after what the colleges do, making sure everybody is involved with something during every period,” Jones said. “A lot of time the young guys get frustrated because they feel like they’re not getting instruction, so we try to pay attention to them. And during the end of practice, they get a chance to go just down there by themselves (and work on anything they saw us do). We want everybody to feel important. That way, (when we win), everybody feels like they played a part.”

It’s novel. It’s clever. It’s downright genius. And it’s working.

The JV team, coached by Jones’ assistants Nikki Carlisle and Louis Smith, went undefeated last year for the first time in school history. Now, a vast majority of those players are members of the Westover varsity. And suddenly, just like that, a culture of losing was zapped. And a new culture — a culture where everyone eats steak at the winner’s table for the post-game meal — was born.

Did it happen overnight when Jones walked through the door three years ago? Or did it happen last year with that 8-4 winning record and a group of youngsters who watched it unfold with so much admiration, they went out and one-upped them? Doesn’t matter at this point.

Westover has arrived, and it’s not going anywhere.

“We look real good so far,” senior RB Shannon Saunders says with zero brag in his voice. To him, it’s just a fact.

But Saunders, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound bruiser could just as easily be talking about himself. He’s one of five offensive starters Westover returns and easily the most important. But you won’t hear him say that.

“I’m only as good as my line. That’s the truth,” said Saunders, who missed seven games with an injury and played largely in the shadow of former Patriots star and current Albany State running back Dalviness Greene last year. Saunders still managed to rush for 391 yards and seven touchdowns, while Greene broke the school record with 1,614 yards last season. “Every time they throw a good block for me, I’ll tell them. I’m out to break (Greene’s records) this year. And if we both do our jobs, I think we can.”

Westover returns three senior starters on the OL, including Cameron Johnson, Tony Mosley and Danyl Dickerson, and six total starters on defense: the 6-foot-3, 292-pound Thompson; Brenten Wimberly (Sr., DE), Antravious Parks (Jr., LB), Anthony Morgan (Sr., LB), Jaelon Benjamin (Sr., DB) and Julian Colwell (Sr., DB).

Missing from that list, of course, is a quarterback. Meaning suddenly, opponents have found an instant weakness that is the growing force that is Westover … right?

“Everyone (around the region) keeps saying Westover has no quarterback,” Saunders said. “Well, guess what? We have a quarterback, and his name is Ta’Keevian Harris.”

Harris, a 5-10, 165-pound senior, earned the right to start, says Jones, after he beat out not one, not two, but three other “very capable” quarterbacks during preseason practices. Harris, however, has never started a game at Westover.

“I feel very confident. But I feel confident that any of us could do the job,” Harris said as he pointed to his three competitors standing next to him: juniors John Craig Collins and Cleatus Hopkins Jr., and sophomore Emory McKenzie, all of whom nodded their heads in agreement before Collins looked at Harris and added: “And we feel confident in him.”

Westover will once again be a run-heavy team — “something, like, 80-20 run-to-pass,” Jones says — but that doesn’t mean Harris won’t get a chance to throw. Returning senior wideout Jaquri Shingles is the team’s playmaker in open space, and fellow senior wideouts Michael Green and Cedric Jackson, and junior Tracy Brown are all guys the Patriots will try to get the ball downfield to.

And Harris, for one, can get the ball downfield in a hurry.

During an impromptu throw-off following the close of Tuesday’s practice — all four QBs stayed late to get in some extra work, a habit they formed early in preseason camp — Harris won it easily when his pass sailed tightly through the air for 65 yards after only taking a casual, two-step drop.

Hopkins was fine with losing to Harris. He’s just glad he doesn’t have to face him.

“I told you we’ve got a quarterback,” said Hopkins, whose father, Cleatus Sr., is Westover’s offensive line coach.

The Patriots have 10 assistant coaches in all, and that’s believed to be the most of any area program. Of course, to get where the Patriots truly believe they’re headed this season, every one will have to be involved. Right down to every piece of instruction. Every pep talk. And every pop-quiz.

As for where they’re headed? Well, the goals stretch beyond last year’s runner-up trophy in the region. Way beyond.

And while it’s something Patriots fans may have heard before, they likely never believed it until now.

“We want to win championships, there’s no question about that. But this team is talking about going to the Georgia Dome and playing for a state championship,” said Jones with zero hesitation in his voice. “That’s really what they want to do. These seniors, they want to have an opportunity to do better than the class that preceded them. Last year, we made it to the second round of the playoffs, and they all want more than anything else is to get beyond that, get to the Dome and play for that ring.

“State championship. State Championship. State championship. That’s everybody’s goal in the state of Georgia, but we realistically believe we have a chance to make it there.”

And if they do, they will have done it the only way Jones knows how.

Together.

NOTES: The elephant in the room with all this state title talk by Westover is this: How will the Patriots get past Cairo? After all, it’s a team they haven’t beaten in 22 years and they’re just 3-19 against them since 1969. Jones said he understands some may see the hype as premature, but he’s trying to teach a culture of success and belief, and beating Cairo is one of the hurdles the Patriots must eventually get past. “Our guys know, in order to be region champs, it always goes through Cairo,” Jones said. “And ever since I was in high school, the same thing is true once again this year: They’re big and they’re loaded.” … Westover opened the season with a win at home against Tift County last season, 33-29, in Blue Devils head coach John Reid’s first game in Tifton. Jones, however, said Tift is much improved from last season, and the Blue Devils showed it with a 40-12 thumping of Monroe and reigning Herald Player of the Year Charles Stafford in a scrimmage last week … Thompson called the University of Georgia his “No. 1 choice right now,” after the Bulldogs were the first Division I team to show serious interest in him. Florida and Florida State, he said, continue to be in his Top 5, although he doesn’t plan to make a decision until after the season is over … Westover’s football history, as previously mentioned, is not rich. But last year’s season hit two milestones: The Patriots’ six-game win streak from Oct. 12 to Nov. 16 was the longest in program history, while the 8-4 record tied the most wins in a single season in Westover’s 44 years of fielding a football team … Jones’ coaching staff is made up of Kenyatta Phillips (assistant head coach); Bryan Brown (defensive coordinator); Derrick Greene (offensive coordinator); Coleman Camp (DE/special teams); Matthew Hawthorne (QBs/Ks); Cleatus Hopkins (OL); Jeff Hunter (DT); Nikki Carlisle (JV); Louis Smith (JV) and Arthur Anderson (assistant coach).