Jahmaal Nelson strolled through his new kingdom with a smile and a nod, pushing a giant box of some unknown equipment in front of him. After depositing that, checking in with a few students and tossing a clever barb toward an assistant coach, Nelson strolled into his new office.
Just two weeks into his new job as head football coach at Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, Nelson's office shows signs of a man just settling in. It's bare, Spartan appearance is something of a reflection of its occupant, a man who clearly doesn't mind working for everything that comes to him.
Nelson, a former star running back at Dorman High, takes over a program that is continuing to find its way after consolidating in 2012. The job requires someone ready to roll up his sleeves, and it appears Nelson is more than willing to fill that role.
A small television in the corner of the office betrays Nelson's vision for the Jaguars' new offensive scheme. Coaches tape features replays of Georgia Tech's triple-option attack, many of the principles of which Nelson hopes to add to his playbook.
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"I'd like to be able to get into some multiple formations, still be able to run the option, pass the ball, get our line off the ball, try to win the game in the trenches, let our athletes be athletes on offense," Nelson said.
If that's the plan, he has certainly inherited a few promising players with which to work. Chief among them is the dangerous senior Gavin Bush, an all-area receiver who Nelson said may get looks at running back and even quarterback, should the situation call for it. Bush prides himself on electrifying speed, and his presence is sure to be one of the go-to weapons in Nelson's arsenal.
The Jaguars also have a potential star on the offensive and defensive lines in senior Ashley Mitchell.
"Great kid, works hard, very intelligent," Nelson said, rattling off Mitchell's attributes.
As the preseason has worn on, Nelson said he has started to focus on putting players in more specific roles, something that could only come with knowledge of his personnel after a couple weeks of practice. Still, one defining characteristic of his new squad that he was continually quick to mention was flexibility.
"I've got a good group of young kids that are very athletic, got some pretty good size," Nelson said.
Junior Frank Fields and Bush have both had a long look as possible quarterbacks, though Nelson said he may not determine some of his starters, including who will start under center, until just days before Friday's opener at Hilton Head Island High. Bush began the scrimmage against Bluffton as the one taking snaps from under center.
His senior players have already started stepping up to the task of being leaders, which Nelson values very highly. If there's one player on the defensive side who will lead by example, it's senior linebacker Craven Howard. Soft-spoken at times off the field, he is anything but on it. In 2013, on the way to becoming a second-team IP/BG All-Area selection, Howard was spectacular, racking up 126 tackles, including 11 for losses. He'll anchor a defense that Nelson foresees as being fluid in formations, depending on that week's opponent.
"We're going to run the defense that gives us the best chance to win," Nelson said. "We're going to do some things out of a base formation, but every game we game plan for, we're going to do what gives us the best chance to win."
Adaptability is the name of the game for the Jaguars, who don't have the type of depth that the area's other public schools can draw from. As such, Nelson expects his best players to feature on both sides of the ball.
With the Jaguars shifting to a third different offense in three years, it may take some time to settle in. But one thing can be sure: Nelson won't shy away from a heavy workload, and he expects his team to respond in kind.
"I would love to have a lot more depth and platoon guys," Nelson said. "I'm going to put the best 11 on the field."
Stadium: Jasper County Stadium
Region: Region 5-AA
Coach: Jahmaal Nelson (First year at school)
2013 results: 7-5, 5-2 Region 6-AA. Lost to Loris, 38-0, in second round of Class 2-A playoffs.
Key losses: QB D.J. Myers; RB Marquis Griffin; DL Jeffery Gadson; TE/DE Victor Simmons
Key returners: WR/RB/QB Gavin Bush; LB/OL Craven Howard; OL/DL Ashley Mitchell; QB Frank Fields;
THREE KEYS TO THE SEASON
Bush push: Gavin Bush can fly. Put the ball his hands, and the self-proclaimed Fastest Man in the Lowcountry could be off to the races. The program's all-time leading pass-catcher hauled in nine touchdowns in 2013, but in Nelson's new offense, he could see more time out of the backfield, even under center.
Review all options: Nelson is looking to implement a new style, predicated on option football. This doesn't mean he plans to abandon the pass, but the Jaguars will have to find a few capable ball carriers in order for things to run smoothly. Not only that, but Nelson is looking for a quarterback to run the show.
Flexibility: Nelson is still getting used to his players, but he expects each of them to be prepared to play both ways. Decreased depth in Class 2-A football often demands that teams have stars that can excel on both sides of the ball. In Bush, Howard, Mitchell and others, Nelson has a pretty full toolbox to work with.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Offense: Ashley Mitchell, Sr., OL
His size alone makes him an intriguing prospect to keep an eye on, but it's his ability to explode off the ball that keeps defenders off-balance. He'll be especially important in clearing the way for a parade of ball carriers. Mitchell could also see time defensively, but it's on the offensive line where Nelson believes he will have his greatest impact.
Defense: Craven Howard, Sr., LB
His 2013 statistics speak for themselves: More than 120 tackles, 11 of those for losses, a pair of sacks and even an interception return for a touchdown. Howard can do it all, and is the glue that holds the Jaguars' defense together.
Aug. 23 @Savannah Country Day W, 20-14
Sept. 6 HILTON HEAD ISLAND L, 47-6
Sept. 13 @ Bluffton L, 43-2
Sept. 20 BURKE W, 31-0
Sept. 26 @ Battery Creek W, 28-26
Oct. 4 @ Academic Magnet W, 40-7
Oct. 11 NORTH CHARLESTON W, 33-24
Oct. 18 @ Woodland L, 40-20
Oct. 25 GARRETT W, 20-16
Nov. 1 BISHOP ENGLAND L, 35-13
Nov. 8 LAKE CITY W, 14-12*
Nov. 15 @Loris L, 38-0*
HOME GAMES in CAPS (*Playoff game)
Aug. 22 At Hilton Head Island, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 29 NEW HEMPSTEAD, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 12 At Estill, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 MILITARY MAGNET, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 25 BATTERY CREEK, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 3 At Silver Bluff, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 10 At Woodland, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 17 WADE HAMPTON (H), 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 BARNWELL, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 31 EDISTO, 7:30 p.m.
No. Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr.
1 Desjon Fraser RB/WR/DB Jr.
5 Craven Howard RB/LB 5-10 219 Sr.
7 Frank Fields QB/WR 6-0 172 Jr.
8 Ashawn Kemp WR/TE/DE/LB 6-0 208 Sr.
9 Deonte Stephens RB/LB Sr.
10 Dominique Dupont WR/TE/DE/LB 6-2 190 Sr.
15 Chris Wright QB/DB Fr.
17 Kerrell Davis QB/WR/DB Soph.
19 Michael Smith WR/DB 5-7 139 Sr.
20 Deandre Dopson RB/DB 5-9 205 Sr.
21 Gavin Bush QB/RB/WR/DB 5-7 152 Sr.
22 Derrice Miller RB/DB 5-8 153 Sr.
23 Tre Robinson WR/DB Sr.
28 Karmin Williams RB/DB/LB 5-8 170 Soph.
30 Zion Wilson RB/DB 5-5 155 Soph.
34 Erik Wilson RB/DB Jr.
39 Ben Edwards WR/TE/DB Sr.
41 Aaron Deveax WR/TE/DE/LB Jr.
41 Zackery Fields Jr.
52 Shermar Taylor OL/LB/DE 5-10 194 Sr.
54 Jatoree Williams OL/DL Jr.
55 Jalen Beacher OL/DL Sr.
58 Tyler Jones OL/DL 6-1 266 Sr.
60 Jacobi Orr OL/DL 6-1 260 Sr.
62 P.J. Washington OL/DL Sr.
63 Dyheem Singleton OL/DL 6-3 301 Sr.
64 Richard Jones OL/DL 6-0 215 Jr.
65 Takarry Polite OL/DL 5-10 301 Jr.
66 Jarod Woods OL/DL Sr.
73 Jamori Mack OL/DL Jr.
77 Ashley Mitchell OL/DL 6-4 333 Sr.
81 Davonty Dopson WR/DB 5-7 136 Soph.
85 Hyleem Wright WR/RB/DB Fr.
88 Jabori Oshawn Williams QB/WR/DB 5-11 135 Fr.
Javon Allen Jr.
Malik Bostic Soph.
Laman Coleman RB/LB Fr.
Tyrese Exley Soph.
Gregory Tony Flint Soph.
Eugene Grant Soph.
Ivan Jones Fr.
Brandon Lawyer Sr.
David Patterson OL/DL Soph.
Tyshawn Payne Soph.
Christopher Pickney Soph.
Hyron Primies Soph.
Tyrese Smith Soph.
Devin Solomon Soph.
Zackery Tenny RB/DB Fr.
Kevon Williams Jr.
James Willis Soph.
Bryan Wright Jr.