(This is the seventh in a series of preseason stories on new high school football coaches, or veteran coaches at a different school, and top players in the Chattanooga area)
R.C. Helton, a former standout running back at East Ridge, traveled to Arizona in 1983 to continue his football career at Glendale Community College, and two years later took up permanent residence in the Grand Canyon State coaching football at junior varsity and freshman levels at Sandra Day O’Connor, Valley Vista and Desert Edge high schools.
Helton got his big break when he was hired as an offensive coordinator and running backs coach at Trevor Browne High in Phoenix. A year after that, he was the school’s head coach and remained in that position for three years.
Helton was full-bore into his big picture career plan and loving every minute of it.
“I had some family out there,” Helton said, “but I played ball at East Ridge for coach Raymond James and was in the backfield with Rodney Ballard. I had always planned to come back home to retire. My planned got moved up a few years.”
The unscripted career change was predicated by Helton’s decision to check into a coaching vacancy at Whitwell High School in the heart of the Sequatchie Valley. He was scheduled to speak at the Glazer Clinic in Atlanta and decided to make a side trip to Whitwell for an interview.
“Everything worked out,” said Helton, 49. “The committee selected me to be the next coach and I’m very fortunate and glad to be here.”
Helton, whose stepfather Leon Hardeman is a member of The Baylor School and Georgia Tech Halls of Fame, went from Class 5A Trevor Browne – Arizona’s eighth-largest school with an enrollment hovering around 3,000 students, 92 percent of which are Hispanic soccer lovers that mostly never played American football – to Whitwell, a Class A school with a student body of about 360.
Whitwell’s smaller talent pool, however, is passionate about football the Tigers are eager to rejuvenate a program mired in a string of 10 consecutive non-winning seasons. In four of the last six years, the Tigers won exactly one game.
Helton, who retired as a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office in 2006 and soon found his “long-term purpose in life” as an educator and coach, didn’t arrive at Whitwell wearing blinders.
Players were skeptical of seeing another new coach walk into the locker room. With several Tigers still with the baseball team, Helton worked with 21 players in spring practice, not even enough to have a Red and White spring game.
The coach has 30 players heading into Friday’s Sequatchie Valley jamboree at Whitwell – the school will dedicate Holtcamp Field that night – and says his guys will have will have to “play ironman football” this season and hope injuries are kept at a minimum.
“I have to develop trust with these players,” Helton said. “It takes time and commitment on everybody’s part. I show them my work ethic and how badly I want them to be successful. My (assistant) coaches are all good leaders. That’s where it all starts – a strong foundation with the right people in the right places.”
Despite the problem with numbers, Helton was able to get much of his self-developed Diamond T offense during spring drills. It’s an offense with 28 different formations – 14 standard and 14 spread alignments with attributes of the pistol, shotgun and even single wing schemes.
“It’s a time of possession offense,” he said. “We’re going to run the football because it’s an offense that’s adaptable to personnel and we have the kids to do that. The offense definitely has counter, iso features, speed option, triple option, short passing game and affords Helton to press the vertical passing game, if necessary.”
The Tigers, who went 5-5 under coach Billy Barnhart in 2013 after three consecutive 1-9 campaigns, have the perfect running back in 5-foot-6-inch, 163-pound sophomore Clay McHone to power Helton’s ground-oriented offense.
As a sophomore, McHone rushed for 1,406 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine games – he missed one game with a concussion. McHone averaged 8.4 yards per carry and 156 yards per game.
“We started out here telling the guys that nobody had a starting job,” said Helton, whose game-winning touchdown stunning upset against Red Bank in 1982 led to the goal posts being torn down for the only time in school history. “They had to earn it. Every day in practice Clay earns his job. He does not take a play off in practice or in games I’ve watched on tape. He’s a great football player.”
Jake Sartin, a 5-10, 210-pound junior fullback and McHone’s cousin, also will start in the backfield alongside tailback Cody Ingrassia, a 5-7, 150-pound junior. Ingrassia was on track to gain 1,000 yards last season until suffering a broken ankle.
Senior quarterback Tyler Tate, 5-11 and 165, will trigger the offensive unit.
“He’s a competitive, intuitive player who can make things go well when a play breaks down,” Helton said. “He can adapt on the fly.”
The coach is still “moving pieces around” in the offensive line with several players “fighting it out” for starting jobs.
Helton plans to use a 3-4 defense, directed by Jake Cabell, whom he calls “one of the best defensive coordinators” in Tennessee.
“Some of his principles go back to Joe Lee Dunn stuff,” Helton said. “He played for Tom Osborne at Nebraska in the mid-70s and his first coaching job was as a graduate assistant on the Cornhuskers’ staff. He took over as defensive coordinator of the freshman team and Frank Solich was the head freshman coach.”
Cabell spent one year on Barnhart’s staff and Helton said he was pleased that he “decided to stay with the program.”
Helton said middle linebacker Greg Layne a 5-10, 160-pound junior, and Tate at free safety are the defensive field generals. The Shrum boys, Avery and Garrett will be factors in how well the Tigers fare and huge senior Cody Pickett (6-4, 287) will fill one spot on the defensive line.
With coaches in place and players starting to trust them more and more, Helton can start thinking about his first season with the Tigers, which begins on Aug. 22 at Mt. Juliet Christian with hopes of extending a four-game winning streak to close the 2013 season.
One thing worthy of Helton’s immediate attention in the offseason was trying to figure out the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s formula for classifying football teams.
“It’s confusing,” he said. “We’re a 2A school and (TSSAA) has a 1A school in our district.”
There’s no confusion about the strength at the top of District 6-A – strong rivals South Pittsburg and Marion County. Those two schools finished 1-2 last season and are predicted in the same order in 2014.
“This district has some teams with healthy football programs,” Helton said. “The Sequatchie Valley has a long history of competitive football. It’s going to be a challenge for us, but I get satisfaction in doing what some people don’t think can be accomplished. I don’t want a turnkey situation where I’m just the next guy in the building. I like a challenge.”
Tuesday: Red Bank coach Chad Grabowski
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)