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Back where it all began

NC grad Drakeford excited to start his tenure as North Central’s new head football coach

Posted: March 16, 2017 2:41 p.m.
Updated: March 17, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

TYRONNE DRAKEFORD HAS HIT the ground running as the new head football coach/athletic director at North Central, his high school alma mater. The former Super Bowl champion has high expectations for all the athletic programs at the school.

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Walking past the courtyard which looks nearly the same as it did when he was a student at North Central High School, David Branham smiled when asked about his earliest memories of Tyronne Drakeford.

When Drakeford roamed the football and baseball as well as the basketball court at the school before graduating from NCHS in 1989, his legend was still in its infant stages. He had yet to become a standout cornerback at Virginia Tech who would go on to become a second round selection --- the 62nd overall pick --- by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1994 NFL Draft before finishing his rookie season by winning a Super Bowl.

Those accomplishments would be well in the future but to youngsters like Branham, the teenage Tyronne Drakeford was about as big as it got in the northern portion of Kershaw County. And being able to ride the same bus as Drakeford? Well, that was pretty heady stuff for a young David Branham.

“When I was coming into middle school,” said Branham, “Tyronne was getting ready to graduate; as I was coming in, he was heading out.

“When I was in elementary school, we all rode the same bus back then. I remember riding the school bus with Tyronne and some of the other guys who played varsity ball.”

Plenty has changed for both Drakeford and Branham since back in the day. Drakeford went on to an eight-year NFL career after college. Branham attended and graduated from Clemson University with a goal of becoming a teacher in his home community. As fate would have it, the two men wound up crossing paths again; Branham is in his third year as principal at his high school alma mater and when Louis Clyburn stepped down as the Knights’ head football coach and athletic director in December, Branham convinced and hired Drakeford, a local legend, to return home to fill both positions.

If there was ever a hire which just felt right, this is it.

“It’s so exciting,” Branham said as he walked to Drakeford’s temporary on-campus office. “Having graduated from here, playing in college, playing in the pros and winning the Super Bowl … it was a big thing in the community. When I talked to community members about what was important for these position, they  said they wanted someone to be involved in the community and be part of a family atmosphere, which is what we push here at the school, and be part of the Knight community.

“I think that is what excites people the most about Tyronne being back.”

Monday was Drakeford’s first full day of work in Boonetown. He received an overview of the school and took the day to get acclimated to the surroundings, some of which were not even in the planning stages when he walked the hallways here. One day later, things got real for Drakeford as he met his future Knights for the first time. Some 60 young men came to meet and greet their new head coach, some of whose parents may have attended school with Drakeford or, at least, knew of him.

As he sat behind a desk in the middle of a metal building which, at one time, served as the school’s weight room before the current Wellness Center was constructed, Tyronne Drakeford was a man who was already looking ahead to spring practice and the start of pre-season practice for the Knights’ 2017 campaign.

Before going forward, though, he took a step back in time.

“You know what,” he said with a smile in while talking about being home, “it feels great. I’m going to tell you the truth, it feels really good. 

“I told my wife that I never thought that I would come back to Camden to live. I always told myself that I would come back to visit family and friends but when this opportunity came up, I thought there was a real good chance that I could get it and I started to feel real good about it.”

On this day, the thermometer in Kershaw County struggled to get above 50 degrees after several weeks of temperatures being in the 70s. At the same time, Drakeford’s home in suburban Washington, D.C., was getting hammered by winter storm Stella. “It’s cold up there, too,” the 45-year-old said with a laugh. “The warmth, definitely, feels good.

“But just getting the opportunity to be able to come back to your old high school … I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize what a lot of other folks thought of it and not just around here but in northern Virginia, too. On my Facebook page, people wrote ‘That’s a great opportunity to go back to your old high school where you played ball and actually be the head coach and athletic director.’

“It’s a big deal in their eyes and it’s definitely a big deal in my eyes. I’m very excited about it.”

Drakeford made certain to point out that he was concerned with the health and welfare of all sports at North Central. The bottom line is, though, when people judge his efforts as a coach, they will look to the wins and losses along with his the players carry themselves on and off the field as well as in the community.

As for the football program, Drakeford inherits an NC squad which is coming off a 3-7 campaign and has been on the outside looking in when it comes to the state football playoffs in each of the past three seasons. The Knights have not advanced beyond the first week of the state playoffs since they were in the class A ranks in 1998 when they fell to Lewisville in round two.

In the days and weeks since Branham offered him the dual posts at NC on Feb. 7, Drakeford has been in a catch-up mode as he tries to get up to speed as to the players he has returning to the team and what improvements need to be made to the program, in general.

After having watched as much film as some Academy Award voters, Drakeford is learning about his personnel but cannot make any changes until he sees the players and how they perform in the flesh. Before they strap on shoulder pads and put on the helmets, however, Drakeford laid out the plan for his program during Tuesday’s “getting to know ”you meeting.

“Accountability,” he said when asked what his message was to the student-athletes. “They will be held accountable. Just doing the little things … they need to be responsible for working out. I can tell they’re not used to it. The couple days that I’ve been here, you would have only three or four guys working out. The bottom line is that you can’t win games these days if you don’t have the participation (in the weight room.)”

An encouraging sign, Drakeford said, was after the meeting about 20 players came up to him and told him they would be in the weight room that afternoon. When the Knights enter the weight room, they will see what will be a familiar sight.

Fifteen seasons removed from his final NFL campaign as a member of the 49ers, following stops in New Orleans and Washington after his first stint in San Francisco, Drakeford still looks as if he can take a few reps on the field. While that may not be the case, he said he will be a presence in the weight room and will be working out alongside his players.

“I told them that I will be in their working out, too,” he said. “I’m hoping that will entice them into saying that ‘If coach is doing it, then I want to be better than coach.’”

For those who think the player who was tagged with the nickname “Little Prime” when he joined Deion Sanders in the 49ers’ secondary is (pardon the pun) past his prime, Drakeford told his players he is ready for them to challenge him in workouts.

“I said, ‘I’m 45 years old but I can still run and I can still lift some weights, so any of you young guys who are skill guys, I can line up and still go against you right now.’ 

“We’ll have some fun with it and that’s the key. I want them to have some fun and see that it’s not all just structure work and more structure work. We’re going to have some fun.”

Drakeford is coaching on the fly, so to speak, with less than two months before the start of the 20 spring practice sessions allowed by the South Carolina High School League. Those sessions, he said, will be more about evaluating his players than overloading them with plays, even though the groundwork will be laid for the offensive and defensive schemes in the spring.

Not having had the chance to see his players in uniform, Drakeford said it is too early to decide what type of offensive system the Knights will be in come next fall. He is not ruling out going with several looks in order to see what works. What he does know from his time with the 49ers is the West Coast offense, which head coach George Seifert implemented with Steve Young under center, is one which can be effective at the high school level and in getting the ball into the hands of your playmakers.

“From an offensive standpoint,” he said, “I really like George Seifert because I like the West Coast offense and doing it from a spread set. A lot of the West Coast offense is a lot of short stuff and getting the ball into your guys’ hands and then, let them go.”

As a former cornerback, Drakeford has a defensive lean. He looked to the defensive teams he played for in San Francisco and Washington. Both had a common denominator in being coached by Ray Rhodes, who went on to become a head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers.

“I really like Ray Rhodes, who was in Washington and San Francisco when I was there,” he said. “We were an attacking defense with good corners who could lock people down like we have here. I think we have a couple people here who can do that. We’ll also bring some pressure.

“From a defensive standpoint, we’re going to get after folks. We’re going to have guys that can fly around out there. I’ve watched a lot of film prior to my getting here and now that I’m here, I can kind of eyeball some guys and go from their strengths.

“While we will get after folks, we want to make sure our kids are mentally tough and understand their responsibilities and reads. That’s going to be our biggest challenge because I think we have some athletic kids here. We just have to make sure we go out and do what they’re supposed to do and not be all over the field.”

While his mind tells Drakeford that he needs to stick to the defensive side of the ball as a first-time head coach, he said he also knows a little about how the offense works. What he does not want to do is to try and take over on either side of the ball. “The ideal situation is that I have a great offensive coordinator and I have a great defensive coordinator and I can put my own tweaks in,” he said of the freedom which he will afford his assistant coaches.

“One thing I don’t want to do is to try and think that I can do too much. I want to be sure that whoever is on the coaching staff that the accountability will be there and that if you have a position, you have to coach that position. We have to work together because I don’t want the kids to just hear my voice all the time because that can become monotonous. I want them to feel comfortable with their position coach, as well.”

Drakeford said one thing he will try and implement at North Central will be a practice routine modeled after that being used in college and in the NFL. No longer, he said, can you practice in pads twice-daily like he did as a Knight playing under Bill Few. He said preparing for the game mentally is as important as the physical end and knowing when to take your foot off the gas as a coach is important in making sure your players are fresh both physically and mentally.

“I want to give the kids a break so they can understand that we can still practice from a mental standpoint and still get as much out of it as we would if we had pads on; especially in the summertime, you don’t want to beat the kids up,” he said. “You want them to have the chance to recover and be productive when we’re practicing.”

In his first days back at North Central, it did not take Tyronne Drakeford long to see the changes at the school from the time when he was a student there. The Knights have a second-to-none Wellness Center which adjoins the new Castle which sits beside the gym he played in. There is also a field house located at one end of Knights Stadium complete with a coaches office, locker rooms and equipment room.

Drakeford said his players do not lack for any conveniences which, he pointed out, takes virtually all excuses for winning off the table.

“The facilities are great. There’s no excuse for us to say that we don’t have the weights, we don’t have the locker room and stuff like that. We have all that,” he said. “Now, we have to start winning some ballgames.”

While saying that about his football team, Drakeford pointed out that as athletic director, he wanted to see all NC athletic teams prosper on his watch. But as a former star football player who is coming home to lead the most visible of all athletic programs in a high school, he said he knows all eyes will be on him and his players when football season draws near.

“Just on social media, there’s a lot of buzz,” he said of the reaction he has received. “The people who I run into have told me that they are going to come to the games and they are going to support us and they are going to do all these good things with us and, I hope they do; this school deserves it. They’ve gone through a little rough patch, here and there but I think once we get going, the kids’ mentality will change to where they expect to win games as opposed to going out to play a game and just hope that we win.

“When the community sees that change and feels the excitement, I think it’s going to be a big deal here.”

Rather than shy away from expectations in and around the community, Tyronne Drakeford said he embraces them with all the excitement which he had while going up against some of the best receivers in the history of football. He is prepared to bring that style to his players and the Knights’ faithful fans.

“I think the biggest challenge and concern for me is in the community,” he said. “I just told our kids that I know the expectation is going to be for us to win a lot of games because people are saying, ‘He’s a former player here and an ex-NFL player. What’s he going to do?’

“Everybody is expecting us to win games and, not just three or four games. They expect us to win seven, eight or nine games and expect us to go to the playoffs. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for myself and the coaching staff. We just have to get everybody on board and buying what I’m selling. And, I’m hoping what I’m selling is real good.”

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