(This is the ninth 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)
Boyd-Buchanan football coach Grant Reynolds has been wrestling with a quarterback situation that had him deciding between three candidates – Cooper Hodge, Ross Wortman and Kohl Henke – for the starting job.
Reynolds didn’t have the same problem at running back.
That’s because he’s got Austin Jackson, a 6-foot, 210-pounder back for an encore performance in his senior year.
“Austin is going to carry his fair share of the (offensive) load,” Reynolds said after a recent rainy practice session at the school. “We expect him to be the guy that can get us the tough yardage on third-and-short or fourth-and-short. He’s developing into a very tough running back.”
Jackson is a key weapon for the Buccaneers, who have yet to lose a District 5-A game over five seasons and take a 15-game league winning streak into another favorite’s role in 2014.
The Bucs’ last league loss was a 20-18 loss to Tyner on Oct. 31, 2008, when both teams were in the old Region 3-AA. Prior to that streak-ending loss against Tyner, the Bucs beat Sequatchie County, Bledsoe County and Marion County, which came back to eliminate the Bucs from the state playoffs with a 7-6 quarterfinal victory.
In 2013, Jackson led the Bucs in rushing with 510 yards on 109 carries with seven touchdowns – he shared the team lead with quarterback Jim Cardwell in that category. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
Facing a rugged schedule, Boyd-Buchanan took some shots to the gut, but in the regular-season finale clipped rival Silverdale, 22-21, for the district championship. Jackson showed his versatility by catching a screen pass and turning it into a game-winning touchdown covering 9 yards.
Two weeks later nemesis Marion County ended the Bucs’ season with a 28-7 win to give them a 4-7 record and their first losing season since 2007.
Between 2007 and 2013, Boyd-Buchanan was a combined 51-14 with five straight playoff appearances that included one trip to the title game, two semifinal berths and two berths in the quarterfinals.
In addition to his running prowess, Jackson caught six passes for 54 yards and a 9.0-yard average last season.
So, opposing teams would be ill-advised to prepare for the Bucs believing Jackson is simply an on-the-ground threat.
Still, pounding the opposition with a rib-rocking ground game suits Jackson just fine, and it comes with benefits.
“We’ll have to move the ball by running it down people’s throat,” he said. “But that will open up the passing game.”
Early on the Bucs will probably rely heavily on Jackson’s running ability to give Hodge, a junior, time to gain control of the offense after taking over for Cardwell, who was a four-year starter.
Reynolds gave the starting nod to Hodge well ahead of the Bucs’ jamboree matchup against Sale Creek at Finley Stadium on Friday and season opener at home against Red Bank on Aug. 22. That will be a rematch of the 2013 shootout between the two schools the Bucs won 43-41.
“Cooper has done capable work in our preseason scrimmages,” Reynolds said. “The other two guys will be really good playing other positions and, if needed, they’ll come in (at quarterback) and do good jobs.”
Wortman, a sophomore, will rotate in at cornerback and Henke, a freshman, is the team’s starting safety.
How Hodge performs will be a factor in how much running Jackson will do early in the season.
“We have some things our quarterback can do to alleviate that,” the coach said. “If the quarterback can throw the football it’ll take some pressure off our running game. And, vice versa, if Austin runs the ball well it takes pressure off the passing game.”
If those two pieces of the puzzle work out, the Bucs will be on their way to a possible sixth straight district championship.
A smooth-operating offense also can help Jackson achieve two of his goals for the season.
“I’d like to make all-district and do anything to help my team win,” he said.
Jackson handled an important role playing linebacker in 2013 and is projected to see plenty of time on that side of the ball this season.
However, if he has to be the dominant running back that could limit his time with the defense.
“He’s our sam linebacker right now,” Reynolds said. “We’ve got ways to rest him and if we do rest him it’ll be on defense because we have some capable back-up players for him over there.”
With a light rain still falling when the Bucs wrapped up Monday’s practice, Jackson was asked to assess his overall 2013 performance.
After thinking about it for a few seconds, he said, “Well, nobody’s perfect. I did OK, but I had a lot of mistakes on defense and I’ve got to fix that.”
With Cardwell off to college, Jackson said he feels some pressure leading the offense while Hodges gains a footing in his first starting role.
“I feel I can do anything with God’s help,” he said. “I worked hard (in the offseason) on my sprints to improve my speed and finding the cutbacks. I know they will be depending on me and I’m up to that.”
Thursday: Lookout Valley’s Jaylen Wynn.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)