By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
HOLLY POND —
Mike Bates has been to a lot of different places and done a lot of different things as a high school football coach.
In his 24 years on the job, he’s won a state title, coached recent Alabama greats Mark Barron and AJ McCarron, and commandeered programs at some of the state’s biggest schools in Bob Jones, St. Pauls and Cullman.
Yet, at the end of the day, one of the most fun years Bates can recall spending on the sidelines came in 1987 at Lawrence County. The Class 4A Red Devils had never advanced to the state playoffs and were still smarting from a dismal 2-8 record the season before.
By the time Bates was done with them three months later, however, Lawrence County finished 5-6 and earned its first postseason berth.
“What a great year. That was so much fun,” he said. “I loved my time at Cullman and all that stuff, but at the same time, rebuilding is what I like. My favorite thing about coaching is going somewhere new where they struggled and then watching them grow.”
It’s a good thing Bates enjoys rebuilding projects because that’s exactly what he’s getting at Holly Pond, his seventh stop on the coaching circuit.
Bates is inheriting a Bronco squad that averaged just more than 10 points on offense and just less than 35 points on defense en route to a 2-8 record in 2012. The Green and White are 13-38 over the last five years, including one high — a playoff berth in 2011 — and one low — a winless campaign in 2010.
But that’s all in the past. Bates is ready to move forward with the latest bunch of Holly Pond boys, which features a pretty even mixture of new and not-so-new faces.
“We’re a long way from being competitive, but they’re really willing and coachable,” he said. “They’re trying hard as they can to do everything we ask them to do. I don’t know what else you can ask for than that.”
One of the freshest faces for the Broncos has been that of Michael Lambert, who Bates tabbed as the team’s starting quarterback well before the fall. The lefty is just a freshman, but he’s a big boy with a strong arm who the coach called “a competitor” and “football savvy.”
“Michael throws a really good ball,” Bates said. “You can tell he knows what he’s doing there.”
In order to develop the youngster at a manageable pace, Bates is going to lean on his offensive line to keep Lambert’s jersey clean. This year’s unit contains a great deal of experience, with players like Justin “Woody” Woodruff, Mitchell Naler, Jordan Patterson, Nathan Curry, Zach Leech and Dekota Edwards expected to make an impact.
“Those guys are the ones up front we’re going to have to count on to protect him and do a good job of making sure he stays upright. It’s hard to win when your quarterback is parallel,” Bates said with a laugh. “If they’ll do their part, I think he’s going to be fine.”
While Lambert lacks playing time at the varsity level, his backfield certainly does not.
Woodruff referred to senior Jacob Jones as “one of the best leaders we have on the team.” The veteran running back will once again line up behind fullback Dustin Pierce. The duo will also share some of the load with Alex Diaz.
“I know he’s a sophomore, but he’s physically mature and he had a bunch of playing time last year,” Jones said of Pierce. “He’s a hoss.”
Bates is also comfortable with the kids who will be on the other side of Lambert’s passes. The coach said this year’s wide-receiving corps consists of M.J. Ford, Dakota Burks, Kyle Corbin and John Phillips.
Considering the lofty amount of points the Green and White allowed in 2012, Bates has worked tirelessly putting together a defensive rotation that can allow the unit to stay fresh throughout an entire ballgame.
Heading into the season, that rotation looks to include players like Edwards (tackle), Patterson (tackle), Leech (linebacker), Curry (linebacker) and Chris Hernandez (linebacker). Kyle Corbin is the lone returner in the secondary, an area where he’s expected to receive help from Ford and Hunter Townson. Boys like Burks, Pierce and Diaz will also step over from offense and serve as two-way threats.
Bates isn’t ruling out giving some younger guys early playing time, either. He specifically pointed to Zac Naylor, Caleb Jones and Dylan Morton as a few candidates to keep an eye on.
Luke Calvert is back for another year at kicker. He’s also receiving an increased role in Holly Pond’s plans on special teams.
The Broncos are only two years removed from the program’s last postseason appearance. Rebuilding or not, Bates would obviously like to see the Green and White make a return trip as soon as possible.
“I told our guys we want maximum effort. If we can see we’re improving, then the score will take care of itself,” he said. “Our goal is to get in, which is everyone’s goal. Just get in and see what we can do.”
Holly Pond will compete in Class 3A, Region 6 for yet another season. Asked where his squad fits in among the likes of Geraldine, Plainview and Sylvania — all first-round winners in 2012 — Bates self-admittedly reverted to coach speak, saying all he can do is take each opponent one at a time.
“Of course every coach looks on the schedule and goes through the ones he hopes he can win, and I’m sure a lot of people have marked us,” he said with a chuckle. “And that’s OK. Being the underdog is kind of fun. Then you can really judge your progress. If you win, you know you’ve done something well. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
% Jones on his new coach: “I like coach Bates a lot. He’s very experienced, he knows the ropes and he don’t take no crap for nothing.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at email@example.com.