DENHAM SPRINGS -- Heading into his second season as the Denham Springs High football coach, the goal hasn’t changed for Brett Beard.
“We’re trying to figure out that way to bring the old school Denham and have it collide with the new age Denham and see if we can’t have that burst into a product that makes everybody proud again,” Beard said. “When you wear that Denham Springs or the DS on your chest or that Yellow Jacket on your chest, it’s got to mean more again (like) it once meant in the heyday of Denham Springs. That’s our job as coaches and kids, to figure out what it is we’ve got to do to take this program to the next level and bring it back to that heyday. Not just how it was then, but to be better than then and just make everybody so proud to be a part of Denham Springs again. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you solve everything with winning’, and they’re probably right, but we’re going to play a brand of football that’s going to start with being physical and a lot of fun to watch. We’ll start there, and then we’ll let that turn into wins and then ultimately playoff games and playoff wins and see where we can get this program, because I do believe this program can be very, very special.”
The Yellow Jackets head into the season with a roster heavy on juniors, most of whom saw playing time last season.
Quarterback Reese Mooney is one of those players.
“I think our quarterback play is getting better every day, and you have to remind yourself too that he’s just a junior,” Beard said of Mooney. “He got thrust into the fire last year as a sophomore that probably wasn’t ready, but due to injury and just competition, he had the opportunity to come out and play, and I think he gave us a spark and did some great things. But in a year like that with all the chaos and the change, do you ever really ever get to slow down and really play the game and see the game? I’m not real sure, so we’re going to continue to treat it the same way this year. Just get him as comfortable as possible, get him as many reps as possible. Of course, with another year’s growth, you think the game is going to slow down and get easier for him, and as it does, he’s only going to get better. Physically, he’s talented, but mentally, he is still just a junior. He’s still really just a baby even though he just moved into that first realm of upper class. With just six games starting under his belt, he’s still just a pup to us. That’s how we’re going to handle it until he’s ready to take the training wheels off and lead this program to levels it has never seen.”
The backfield also features a pair of junior returnees in Ray McKneely and Cam Kelly, who both had prominent roles in the Yellow Jackets’ jamboree win over Walker.
“Ray McKneely is a special player, a kid for his size, has got a little power in him,” Beard said. “He’s got a little shake in him and really can make us go. I think he’s a guy we’ve got to get creative with to get the ball in his hands any and everywhere possible and just let him play the game because it’s what he loves to do.”
Said Beard of Kelly: “The game’s a lot alike (to McKneely), a little more power back but has really come a long way this year and is just a solid 1B guy to have in your backfield that we’ve got to get on the field with Ray. There’s some things we can get creative with both of those two guys on the field.”
Beard said sophomore R.J. Johnson will also figure in the mix at running back.
“You can see that he gives us that Kee Hawkins from Live Oak type back, that big body that can really be special,” Beard said. “He’s getting better every day. I’m really excited about our backfield and what those guys are going to be able to do and the depth.”
There’s also plenty of experience in the receiving corps with juniors Camron Eirick, Micah Harrison, Lionell Dawson, Ryder Wygant, Rylan Hiatt and tight end Andrew Goodwin.
Beard said the goal for the group is to become more than just receivers in the team’s offense.
“Sometimes offensive guys, they forget, especially skill guys, that man, if you block on top of being able to run good routes and catch the football and make people miss … you become that complete player, you’re so much scarier and so much better than a big dude that can run routes,” Beard said. “You can do it all.”
The offensive line shapes up with juniors Tyler Kimble (left tackle), Nic Bowden (left guard), Ford McDaniel (center) and seniors Hunter Rushing (right guard) and Zane Hooper (right tackle).
“The key to O-line is communication and jelling,” Beard said. “I say gelling in finding that combination of what five and where across the board and being able to communicate and get comfortable with each other and trust. Once you do that, and once you establish that, your O-line’s got a chance to be really, really good.”
Beard said the key for the group is getting more work together as a unit.
“I think we’ve got some really good players up front,” he said. “We’ve got a good mix of guys that are nasty, a good mix of guys that are extremely intelligent, a good mix of guys that want to take care of the man next to them. They just need more time together. It’s one thing to always work against our D line, but you go against Woodlawn and you kind of get hit in the mouth a little bit and you kind of see a little shellshock.
“You’ve just got to get out of that comfort zone of always working against our guys and wanting to beat up our guys, and you’ve got to handle your business against others,” Beard said.
“You can tell one thing about that group, they have fun together, and I think a lot of times when you can get that pressure off the O-line to where they just have fun and lean on each other I think that’s a rarity, but because these guys have played together for so long and come up through the ranks together, you can see there is a level of comfort,” he continued.
“We have an opportunity to be good, and we’re only going to be as good as where they take us.”
The Yellow Jackets’ 3-4 defense starts with Porter Gibson, Dylan Watson and Alex Chandler up front.
“I’m excited about our guys up front,” Beard said. “I think coming back, they’ve got a chance to really cause some strain and cause some problems for other offensive lines.”
Hayden Rushing and Ethan Foster (outside) and Jed Cambre and Jude (inside) make up the linebacking corps.
“All four are back,” Beard said. “All four are better. Kind of the brains of the operation’s right there in the middle with Jude and Jed, guys that we trust, that we know. One may be a step slow. One may be undersized, but because their strengths are between the ears, they make up for it in the way they play the game and they way get everybody corrected and lined up, and that gives us a chance to be successful on its own. Both are very solid players who we’re excited about.”
Beard said Rushing and Foster have shown improvement.
“One of our weaknesses last year was on that edge, and so far through a spring game and a scrimmage, they’ve shown that they’ve grown up a lot more and are trusting the scheme,” Beard said. “So far, knock on wood, they’ve played a lot better. That’s one of the big question marks coming into this year. We just need a few more weeks with them in game situations and real games to see if they are absolutely ready to take on the responsibilities we’re asking them to do, even after a year where they struggled a little bit. They’ve had great attitudes. They’ve had a great offseason. They are in, and it’s exciting to watch that growth.”
The secondary shapes up with Mason Edwards and Maison Vorise at the corners and Landon Kent and JaBarry Fortenberry at the safeties.
“I think this is the strongest and the weakest parts of our defense,” Beard said. “I think the strongest part are our corners, and I think the weakness right now is our safety play.”
“Our two corners, I think, are special,” Beard continued. “I think with their ability to really do everything we ask of them at a high level makes them what they are. In our district, with some studs that we’ve got and some people we’re going to see, they’re going to be tested week in and week out. I can’t wait to watch them compete. I’m excited about them.”
Beard wasn’t shy about issuing a challenge to his safeties.
“Our safety play, we’ve got to continue to get better,” Beard said. “We’ve struggled tackling at times. We’ve struggled with our reads at times. We get caught guessing a little too much right now.”
The safety group is also expected to get a boost when Jordan Reams returns from an injury.
“He’ll come into the fold and put a little pressure on both of them,” Beard said. “We’ll find the two guys that are ready to play going forward that can get the job done that we’re asking them to do.”
Beard said he’s had time to reflect on last season’s defensive effort.
“We had our struggles last year,” Beard said. “We tried to do too much too quick in a year that was kind of crazy, and we ended up having to kind of back up and start over. We just tried to do too much too fast. Instead of being really good at two or three things, we were mediocre at a lot of things. That’s one thing that we don’t have this year going into year two. We have things in place that make us comfortable, that make them comfortable, and I expect a big turnaround defensively for us.”
That optimism comes partly from having a year working in the system.
“We’ve got some experience, and I think through a spring game and a fall scrimmage, you can see with that experience, we’ve gotten better,” Beard said. “We’ve gotten bigger. We’ve gotten stronger. We’ve gotten more physical. We’ve gotten a better understanding of what it is we’re asking them to do. Getting them to do their job at a high level is the next part, the next stage.”
The Yellow Jackets are slated to open the season Friday hosting East Iberville, with a road game at Cecilia (Sept. 17). Denham Springs hosts Franklinton (Sept. 24) and Tara (Oct. 1) in pre-district games.
“You’ve got to look at the power point situation,” Beard said. “We’ve got some teams on there, even though they’re some small schools, but they’re very successful. They had some good wins last year. Sometimes being one of the bigger schools in the state, it’s hard to find opponents that are willing to play us if they’re small, but we can benefit them by them playing up in class.”
Denham opens District 4-5A play at Central on Oct. 8, then hosts Zachary (Oct. 15) and Live Oak (Oct. 22) and Scotlandville (Nov. 5). DSHS travels to Walker on Oct. 29.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for 4-5A, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that Livingston Parish started playing a lot better football,” Beard said. “I still say that year in and year out because that’s the truth. I think the intense rivalry situation and games that we have in Livingston Parish make them all tough contests. There’s really no week off when you get into District 4-5A. It is a gauntlet that you get in and be prepared to play in week in and week out. That’s why I love it. Great coaches, great players. That’s why you do this in 5A in Louisiana.”