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Crisis Management 101

Interim head coach Dave Thomas doing things his way Lugoff-Elgin

Posted: August 7, 2014 10:48 a.m.
Updated: August 13, 2014 5:00 a.m.
C-I photo by Tom Didato/

DAVE THOMAS ... L-E interim head coach

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It was business as usual for the football program at Lugoff-Elgin in the early part of the spring and summer.
In the days following the final classes of the 2013-14 academic year, members of the school’s football team went about their regular summer business of showing up for summer conditioning sessions, workouts and Wednesday morning passing league contests. Then, like a right hook coming out of nowhere, the Demons were sent to the canvas when 12-year head coach Scott Jones abruptly and unexpectedly retired to take a teaching/coaching/administrative post at Ben Lippen School in Columbia on July 9.
Two days later, Dave Thomas, who was the team’s defensive coordinator in 2013 after having spent the first 18 years his entire coaching career as an assistant with Fort Mill, Northwestern and Nation Ford high schools in York County, had the title of interim L-E head football coach to his title after interviewing with L-E principal Worth Thomasson. Since then, the Fort Mill native has had his foot on the accelerator with little time to stop and smell the proverbial roses.
“It’s full steam ahead,” Thomas said of his schedule since being handed over the reins to the program. “I told my wife, as soon as Mr. Thomasson called me that Friday that summer ended that Sunday night.”
Since then, the program has been in “hurry up” mode as both players and coaches have had to adjust to the implementation of new schemes on both sides of the football. Thomas said his task is to  help turn things around for a program which has won one of its past 27 outings and is coming off a 1-10 campaign in which it snapped a 23-game skid with a 31-10 dismantling of Richland Northeast in week seven.
Having only been through one season at L-E, Thomas said what he witnessed last fall was not a scene which he, his coaching staff or the Demon players want to repeat. It is his responsibility, he said, to try and right the ship.
“Last year, we went through a 1-10 season,” he said before heading out to a late afternoon practice. “There was a lot of heartache on Friday night and I told them that I didn’t like that and I wasn’t going to watch that. We are going to prepare and we are going to know that when the game is over that we put our best foot forward and gave our best effort on the field.”
As a head coach for exactly three weeks before the first pre-season practice, Dave Thomas has tried to put his personal stamp on both sides of the football. While former Spring Valley assistant Mike Wells was brought in to run the offense, Thomas will continue to call the defensive signals. Having been through a full season, as well as spring practice, Thomas was able to implement the defense which best suited the Demons’ personnel before school let out for the summer.
As for the offense, L-E was still in a form of the spread when Jones retired. Since then, there has been a major overhaul on that side of the football which is more in line with Thomas’s and Wells’s philosophy which is to grind things out on the ground and keep the ball away from enemy offenses.
“Transition-wise, we’re doing well,” Thomas said of the change at the L-E helm. “We’re a little behind on the offensive side because we made a change so we’re trying to get caught up on that side of the ball.
“Defensively, we are where we wanted to be. We had the spring to work on what we wanted to do and had the summer and passing league to work on what we were doing. We’re ‘re pretty well suited on defense but on offense, we’re catching up.”
The one main cog missing from the L-E offense this season is graduated quarterback/tailback Shon Belton, who is suiting up at The Citadel after accounting for better than 68 percent of L-E’s offense and more than 61 percent of its scoring last fall. Belton ran for 1,278 yards and 14 touchdowns while throwing for 726 yards with four going for scores. For good measure, he had a 21-yard pass reception for 2,025 yards in offense.
With Belton gone and a new option-oriented attack in place, the Demons have a trio of quarterbacks vying for the starting job under center with no clear-cut frontrunner having jumped to the top of the list in the pre-season.
Gunnar Catoe, a gutsy 5-foot-5, 175-pounder who played in the secondary as a sophomore, was moved to quarterback. He is competing for the job along with senior Keyshawn Martin, who drew several starts last fall in which he passed for 69 yards. Fellow senior Ben Johnson, who saw playing time under center in 2013, has thrown his hat into the ring for a starting job which includes more than the usual dose of pressure which comes with being a quarterback for a 4A program.
“The biggest challenge, right now, is finding a quarterback,” Thomas said matter-of-factly. “This offense that we’re going to run is centered around the quarterback. We don’t have a starter locked in. We have two scrimmages and the jamboree to figure it out and let somebody fight their way onto that starting role. That’s our biggest question mark, right now.”
In a predominantly run-first attack, Thomas feels better about a stable of quick, strong but set of young tailbacks. “We have a talented group of running backs,” he said.
Sophomore Jermaine Jenkins got his feet wet against varsity competition while rushing for 91 yards as a freshman. Classmate Rhamel Burton enjoyed a strong junior varsity season and carried it over into spring ball and through the summer to draw the eyes of the coaching staff while a third sophomore, Kadar Jennings, could be ready to make a name for himself on the varsity level. Add linebackers-turned-fullbacks in seniors Dakota Jones and Jacob Collins to the backfield and you have a group which can get to the corner as well as pound the ball between the tackles.
Whoever winds up under center will have a pair of big targets when he goes up top. In 6-5 sophomores Elliott Campbell and Justin Wilson, the Demons have two receivers who can give smaller defensive back fits. Add 6-foot-1 junior McKenzie Brown to the group and you have a trio which is capable of making big plays when needed. But, Thomas said, their chances could be few and far between should the running game be clicking.
“They’re not super-fast, but they don’t have to be in this offense and for what we’re going to do,” he said of his wide out while adding that the Demon offense had not reached the point to where it had put a tight end set into place.
In the early days of pre-season practice, Thomas said the offensive line was still a work in progress, although the return of senior starting center Charles McCray was a solid starting point for the interior group. Senior Evan O’Brian, a two-year starter, is back as is junior Devin Reeder, who may be asked to play guard. Those three will anchor a unit which is still in flux.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” Thomas said when asked his starters in the trenches. “The other slots are open . We’ll see what might happen over the next couple weeks.
“I think it will be easier for our linemen because we’ll be limited as to what we can run. It’s one of those things where we’re taking less plays and trying to get good at them before we add anything else. It’s just repetition, right now.”
For Demon fans who might want to see the ball in the air 20 to 30 times a game, this offense will be more conservative and, Thomas and company hopes, more successful after a 28-turnover campaign a year ago.
“We’re going to move it and we’re going to hold the ball,” he said of the offensive philosophy. “We’re just not ready at the skill positions to go full throttle. You see a lot of offenses that are throwing it but you have to have a quarterback who can deliver it and you have to have guys who can catch it. We’re just not at that point, yet.
“If we can keep the ball out of the other team’s offense’s hands, we’ll have a better shot to win the game on Fridays.”
While not having the flash and dash of some offensive schemes, Thomas said the option attack which the Demons will employ is one which has proven to be effective while being one which the staff had seen and worked with before.
“We just needed something that I knew, our coaches knew and something we could hang our hat on,” he said. “We sold out and flipped systems. We’re just working on trying to get the basics down now.”
Having allowed 410 points in 2013, Thomas used the off-season to tweak things on the defensive side of the football. The Demons are expected to employ a three-man front scheme with most of the experience returning in the first two lines of defense.
Geremiah Montgomery, a 5-foot-10, 260-pound interior lineman, is coming off a 19-tackle junior campaign in which he had six stops behind the line of scrimmage. Michael Dinkins, a 5-11, 190-pound junior, is expected to line up at one end after a 20-tackle 2013 season.
The strength of the defense lies at linebacker, a spot which returns junior Malek Lyles who led the Demons with 55 tackles last season which included five sacks, five tackles for loss of yardage, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. Jones racked up 40 tackles as a junior with four coming behind the line while Collins rang up 28 stops.
A youngster making his presence felt along the second line of defense is sophomore Adam Rowson who is enjoying a solid pre-season camp and is close to cementing a starting spot alongside more experienced players.
The worrisome area on defense, Thomas said, comes in the secondary. That unit is one which was still in flux with the Demon boss saying sophomore Noah Purser was close to locking down one starting job while the other pair is up for grabs.
One guarantee which Thomas made as to his starting group was that the ones who need to see playing time will get more than their share on Friday nights. “We might end up with kids playing both ways,” he said. “I told them that we’re going to put the best 11 out there; it may be the same 11 on both sides, I don’t know. But we’re going to find out.”
Thomas said the transition period was helped along due to the fact that before Jones left, he gave Thomas more input into helping run the off-season program. With Thomas in charge, though, things have changed, just as they would whenever a new coach comes into a program.
“The ship will be a little bit tighter this go around; that’s just how I operate,” he said. “The kids are finding that out little by little and, some of it will be the hard way.”
The Demons need to become hardened in order to compete against a tough non-conference slate followed by a revamped Region 4-4A which has lost cellar-dweller Richland Northeast and Irmo and replacing them with an upstart Westwood program and defending Big 16 champion Dutch Fork.
“Our region is pretty tough,” Thomas said while managing a smile. “All those teams are going to be more athletic than us.  I’ve told our kids from the first day that we’re not going to be the best athletes on the field so, we have to execute. We have to be able to tackle and do the little things so that we have a shot.
“They know who they are playing against and they know about the competition we are going to face. My job in the pre-season and from Monday through Thursday is making sure that we do our best job to prepare them for Friday so there are no questions going into the game.”
Having just three weeks from his hiring as interim coach to the start of pre-season practice left precious little time for Dave Thomas to jot down any goals and expectations for the Demons. That said, the first-time head coach said even if he had an entire spring and summer to prepare for this season, he still would not have put any such list together.
“Season goals?” he said before taking a moment of two to respond to that question. “I’m not real big on those. I’m a one week at a time guy. Let’s not look past the guy who’s in front of us.
“When you have had three wins in the last three seasons, you have to take it one game at a time. If things pan out and we make the playoffs and can make a playoff run, that would be the icing on the cake for us. But my focus is, ‘Let’s get through the scrimmage, let’s look at it and see what we need do then. Then, let’s move on to the next scrimmage and then, the jamboree and then, game one.’”

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