The Cullman High football team, coming off an 8-4 season and seventh straight trip to the playoffs, entered fall camp on Monday feeling quite a bit more comfortable about its quarterback situation than it did in 2011.
At this time last year, Zac Crocker was right in the thick of a hotly contested battle to be the Bearcats’ starter. But after a breakthrough season behind center, there’s no question the All-State honorable mention is the man for the job.
Mark Britton has been more than pleased by Crocker’s development in the last 365 days.
“I think he just has so much more self-confidence,” the Cullman coach said of his senior signal-caller. “He knows what to expect now. Last year, the kids were a lot like the coaching staff, they didn’t know who the quarterback was going to be. This year, they’re just getting in and following his lead.
“Zac has really taken on that leadership role. We’re really excited about that. It gives our receivers and everybody on the offensive side of the ball a lot of confidence.”
Having that veteran presence at quarterback was already paying dividends for the Bearcats in their first team practice. Crocker’s pinpoint accuracy — he completed over 70 percent of his passes in 2011 — was on full display during passing drills on Monday morning.
He made all the right reads, exposed a blown coverage and even got a little bit lucky. When one of Crocker’s final passes was deflected, the ball still found a way into the open arms of Houston Turner, who happened to be standing in the end zone.
Turner is one of four returning wide receivers — Troy Forrest, Wesley Hendrix and Mason Jones are the others. With so many familiar targets at his disposal, the quarterback is confident he can build on his first-season success.
“I always plan to do better than I did last year,” Crocker said. “I set the goals pretty high and then do everything in my ability to reach them. I’m hoping for a lot better than 70 (percent) this year because I know I felt comfortable last year, and I feel even more comfortable this year.”
The emergence of Drew Johnson and Garrett Crider as a formidable running back tandem played a big part in Crocker’s ability to be an effective passer. But now, Johnson is on the defensive side of the ball as a linebacker, leaving Crider as the go-to guy in the backfield.
With Greg Smith, Landry Hall, Ethan Flack and Hagan Jones all lost to graduation, Crider will be forced to find holes behind an almost brand-new O-line.
“We’re young (in that area), but I know they’re going to step up because they’re going to try to make our senior year the best they can,” Crocker said. “They’re going to come up here and give it their all like we are.”
The quarterback isn’t concerned with having a new center, either. Hall, a three-year starter, is being replaced with sophomore Daniel Hunter. So far, Crocker said the transition is going smoothly.
The Alabama High School Athletics Association’s reclassification has thrown Cullman back into Region 8, which features six teams — defending-champion Hartselle, Muscle Shoals, Russellville, Athens, East Limestone and the Bearcats — that reached the postseason in 2011. That’ll make for a playoff-like atmosphere each week, but Crocker said the Black and Gold are more than ready for the challenge.
“I’m thinking we’re going to do pretty well,” he said. “Just because it’s a tough region doesn’t mean that we can’t be a tough football team. I think that we’re going to be stout and come out and show everybody that it’s not going to be a bad season just because of our schedule. It’s some of our senior years, and we want to go out with a bang.”
‰ Cupboard isn’t bare: Of the 82 kids who showed up for Cullman’s fall practice on Monday, Britton had the highest praise for Tyler Glenn. The coach said the backup quarterback took advantage of opportunities to receive some added experience this offseason when Crocker played baseball in the spring and missed a few early 7-on-7s this summer because of vacation.
“I think it was helpful for us in the long run that Tyler Glenn got 100 percent of the reps at quarterback,” Britton said. “The cupboard isn’t bare behind Zac. I think our guys have a lot of confidence in Tyler, too, and that always helps.”
‰ Hard work pays off: With Monday morning’s first practice session in the books, Britton was excited to see his players’ dedication to a strenuous offseason program, which included a “tremendous amount of running,” already paying off.
“Our kids look really good, and I feel good about them being acclimated to the heat,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a benefit, especially early in the year for us.”
‰ Mid-season form: It usually takes awhile for everyone to get on the same page when players report for fall camp, but that wasn’t the case at Oliver Woodard Stadium on Monday.
Britton said he chalks that up to his coaching staff being together so long, as well as the way the Bearcats begin developing their kids at the middle school level.
“When we conduct a practice like this right here, we’re in mid-season form,” the coach said. “The kids already know what we’re doing. You don’t have to sit around and explain or show them how to do anything.
“That’s how it is with our freshmen, too. They’ve been doing these same drills. That’s really helped us because we’ve already done a lot of teaching.”
* Editor’s note: Pick up the Football Fever special section on Aug. 26 to see a team preview for Cullman, as well as the other eight schools in the Times’ coverage area.