Cougars’ season opener Friday at Northside

The Pulaski County Cougars open their new season Friday (Aug. 27) on the road against always tough Northside.

The Cougars open the season after showing improvement in last week’s scrimmage action at Lord Botetourt.

“I was pleased with last week’s scrimmage,” said Head Coach Mark Dixon earlier this week. “I definitely think some of the things that were obviously urgent were getting better … quarterback – center exchanges were much improved. The passing game was much improved.”

The quarterback – center exchanges are a vital part of any offense, but especially this season for Pulaski County.

“We’re in the pistol now, not under center anymore, so getting the center to snap it and step at the same time and block – and a brand-new center at that – it just takes time to go through the struggle of it. But he’s gotten better and better, and I think last week we had just one bad snap. The first time, we were struggling the whole scrimmage. So, to me that was the biggest improvement,” Dixon said.

Friday’s game will be the 36th meeting between the Cougars and the Vikings. Pulaski County holds a 21-14 advantage all-time against the Vikings.

The last time the two went at it on the field was in 2019 when the Cougars shut out Northside, 14-0.

“It’s the same type of Northside,” Dixon said. “They’ve got skill kids and do a real good job scheme-wise. They take things away from you. I think they’re well coached and they’ve got skill kids. They’re big up front, definitely bigger than we are there’s no doubt about that.”

When the Cougars have the ball, it will be Cam Cooper running the show in his first varsity start.  Behind him will be running back Trevor Burton and full back Tyler Underwood.

Starting at receiver will be John Lyman, Keyontae Kennedy and J.J. Gulley.

Up front for the Cougars will be Evan Alger at left tackle, Demarcus Hayden at left guard, Jack Johnson at center, Diego Turner at right guard and Jack Allen at right tackle.

“Lyman and Hayden are the only returning starters on offense and Hayden is switching positions so there’s only one returning starter who played that position (Lyman),” Dixon said.

Defensively, the Cougars will line up this way:

Up front on the line are Allen Fernandez, Caleb Yelton and Jack Allen.

Linebackers are Alger and Burton on the outside and Turner and Underwood on the inside.

In the secondary, cornerbacks are Gulley and Zack Parker, while the safeties are Lyman and Kennedy.

Junior Nathan Pratt will handle the kicking and punting duties this season.

Dixon acknowledges there are a lot of players playing both ways. But he doesn’t seem too concerned.

“Lot of people playing both ways, but we’ve got a lot of depth” he said. “There’s kids who are going to play a ton. Filipe Aguilar is going to play a bunch on the D-Line, Tyler Sutherland is going to play a bunch on the D-Line, Chris Gallimore is going to be in there at linebacker a ton. Brett Jones is going to play a ton at safety. So, there’s a lot more depth than you think. They’ll rotate in a ton. I could easily name them starters.  We’ll sub those guys freely.”

“We’re so young, we’re really young. We’ll be playing a lot of guys who will have to grow up, but it’s fun. I’ve enjoyed it. I love the kids. They work so hard and try so hard. They get better every day.

“So far, knock on wood, it’s probably been one of my favorite teams to be around and coach in all my years of coaching,” Dixon stated. “The challenge is great, but man it’s fun when you’re with kids that are enjoying it.”

Quite a change from last season.

“It was difficult last year, I think with the transition and COVID. Last year my heart broke. They (players) went through so much change. It was difficult with so much change and then you add in COVID, and then you add in really there was no pre-season. We were having to work them around the clock to get up to speed. Plus, the weather. We were outside one day before we had a game.  I’ve never been through anything like it,” Dixon said.

Just when we thought that maybe COVID wouldn’t be as much of a factor this year, the virus is surging in many areas again.

Just what does COVID’s hanging around mean for Dixon and his team?

“Last season, oh it was awful … and still is. It’s less coaching and more mitigation. Got to wear your mask, got to sanitize up, you got temperature checks, checklists. You’re always on the edge of your seat waiting for the shoe to drop, and you’re scared to death when it’s going to drop.

“Way more anxiety than anything else I’ve ever been through. Not football, that stuff. But trying to protect kids and being worried to death that something was going to happen.

“I think the fear is still there, but you almost get used to it.

“Unfortunately, it’s back. Now we’re right back with the same stress. I pray that someday we can get over this because the stress on everybody obviously is huge.

“When you’re working with kids, I guess you feel, ‘Man, if they go home and pass this to a parent or grandparent,’ that’s the feeling. You’re worried to death – you don’t want to be the reason for something awful to happen.

“Usually when you’re coaching football you worry about that on Friday night. An injury that’s catastrophic or something. Now you worry about it five days a week,” Dixon explained.

As noted, Friday’s season opener is on the road and will be followed, next week, by yet another road game. How does that sit with Dixon?

“Hadn’t even thought about it,” he responded. “I guess because we’re so young, you’re just living day to day to fix yesterday. Eventually I guess Wednesday or Thursday I’ll start thinking about scheduling for Friday. How we’ll leave, when we’ll leave and all that stuff. They’re so young it’s just day to day right now.”

While this season’s edition of the Cougars is young in terms of playing experience, they’re also a little smaller up front than in past seasons.  But that doesn’t seem to be a big concern for Dixon – just the opposite.

“In terms of offensive line play, being huge is not always great,” he said. “I think athleticism is 2-to-1, 3-to-1 more important than size … how athletic you are. I think we’re really athletic. We’ve got to run plays that use our athleticism. I don’t know that we’ll be able to bump you straight off the ball, but you know there’s more than one way to run the ball and more than one way to pass block and we have to find what works for our kids.”

“I’m more used to a line like I have this year. I’m really into an athletic line. Part of it being the head coach I get to pick. To me it’s not the biggest kid, it was who had the best speed to strength ratio. You’ve got to have a certain amount of size to do it. But once you cross that threshold now give me the athletes. To me that threshold is 185 to 190 pounds. Once you’re over that we’re good. We can make it work.”

Heading into the new season, what is Dixon the most confident about in his Cougars?

“The kids. How hard they’ll work. Their resiliency. I don’t think we have any quit in us and I think the kids know this is a marathon. You start at the bottom of that hill and start climbing. Where you get to is where you get to. I think our kids have bought into that. And we’ll all be thankful that we’ve had an opportunity to do it.

“As the program builds and gets better then certainly the goals can change. But right now, it’s just a matter of making sure our kids embrace getting better every day. No matter how good you are you can’t control the end result. You can take care of what you can control, which is practicing hard and being prepared. But that’s all we can control. No matter how good you are the ball still has to bounce your way.

“I think we’ve got a good mindset. That’s our strength. Our kids’ strong minds,” he said.

His biggest concern?

“Youth and then – it’s just experience, and they’ve just got to go get it – got to go through it. I think roster management going forward is critically important, so we don’t go through this again. We’ve got a lot of kids now who haven’t played a lot of football. We need to make sure we don’t find ourselves in this way in the future, that we manage who plays where.  I never like to go into a year with new starters everywhere, but that’s something you can manage and needs to be managed.

“If you have an offensive line and two of them are back, they can tell the rest what to do. But we have nobody back. It’s slow because they’re all learning. To me every position is like that. You always need one or two that are returners. You need to really work it that way. They can talk and get the young guys on the same page,” said Dixon.

This season starts will two road games against two opponents both nicknamed “Vikings” – Northside and Tennessee High.

The Cougars open at home on Sept. 10 against old rival Bluefield. After an open date on Sept. 17, Cave Spring comes to Dublin. The Cougars open October on the road at Hidden Valley before returning home the next week against our biggest rival, the Salem Spartans in a rare mid-season matchup instead of the season ending brawl we’re all used to.

After that the Cougars go to Blacksburg, play at home against Graham, travel to Patrick Henry and then close out the regular season at home against an improving Christiansburg squad.

“We’ve got some new teams on the schedule – Tennessee High and Bluefield. Some new teams for our fans to see. Really good teams,” Dixon said, noting playing that caliber of opponent allows his kids to see those kids, and gives the Cougars an opportunity to show they can play with them.

Gametime Friday is 7 p.m.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot