ENTERPRISE --- A little over a month ago, Enterprise High School football players were crawling through mud and hard clay with weighted rucksacks on their backs - and that might have been the easy part of their GORUCK challenge.
From sunrise to sunset, players also hauled logs, sandbags and ammo cases, and they had to run – rather than crawl – through the mud on several occasions.
That wasn’t all.
There were, of course, the standard exercises: pushups, bear crawls, burpees, six inches, etc. Then there were the not-so-standard ones, where groups of players had to get down on all fours to form bridges for their teammates to crawl across. Not enough support for the player on top and, like an old, creaking bridge, the suspension drops and the player falls.
People in Enterprise don’t much like falling. Many parents, students, fans and – maybe even players – might have thought the sky was falling in 2017.
It was a 2-8 season for the Wildcats, and a 1-5 finish in the region. By no means was it narrowly missing a playoff berth. It was, instead, missing the playoffs by a huge margin. Say, perhaps, a 15-mile margin, which happens to be the distance players marched as they endured the GORUCK challenge in June.
But David Faulkner – the Wildcats’ battle-tested head coach, who crawled in the mud with his players to show them he was “willing to work” – knows how to turn around a program. He’s done it before.
He was hired as head coach of the ‘Cats in 2011, after two straight losing seasons. He’d posted a 28-9 record in three seasons at Fairhope, leading the team to a 10-0 regular season in 2009.
His first season at the helm of EHS resulted in a first-round playoff appearance.
Second season? A second-round playoff appearance that ended in a narrow, thrilling and heart wrenching loss to Smiths Station in double overtime, 41-34.
In six seasons, Faulkner has led the Wildcats to the playoffs four times. That includes a bulldozing 11-2 season and second-round playoff appearance in 2016.
Yes, Faulkner can (and has been able to) turn things around.
The 2018 season is a year for turning things around. It’s also a year for developing players, Faulkner said, and that’s one of the reasons the GORUCK challenge became a reality.
It was a “missing piece” for the program, according to Faulkner. After analyzing the team as a whole, and specifically its strength & conditioning (the “lifeblood of the team”) and offseason programs, Faulkner and the coaching staff – along with Slade Stinnett, who heads up The E Club – were looking to make a small change.
“We were kind of like, ‘There’s still a piece missing there,’” Faulkner said. “Something that’s maybe not like being in the squat rack or maybe not like doing a dead lift or hang cleans. Those things are tough, but we said, ‘There’s something we need.’’”
Once Stinnett explained what the GORUCK challenge was, Faulkner said he bought in, and thus what would become the “toughest single day physically and mentally that our kids have had from an athletic standpoint” came over a 12-hour period at The Farm, just off Highway 167.
That trek through the fields and trees and mud created a “mindset transformation” in the players, Faulkner said, that is “still paying off in practices and in the weight room.”
It remains to be seen whether the challenge will help on the field.
Faulkner certainly seems to believe it’s a possibility:
“I think at some point in the year, that may win us a game or two,” he said.
Faulkner said he has thus far been pleased with the progress the team has made since spring as EHS heads into fall camp – but the nature of progress is that it does not stop.
“We still have a lot of work to do if we’re going to compete at a championship level,” he said. “That’s always our goal at Enterprise High School.”
Offensively, the Wildcats will be led by senior Grant Thornton, who is stepping in to replace three-year starter Koty Fulton-Tice, and tailbacks Maurice Hicks and Trey Robinson.
“Grant could have an exceptional year,” Faulkner said. “He’s played the position in our offense since he was a seventh-grader … he’s always been around the program and around the offense.”
Faulkner also said Hicks and Robinson could be poised for big years, provided they stay healthy. Hicks was sidelined by an ACL tear last season in week two, and Robinson suffered a high-ankle sprain in week three that had him moving a step slower.
“He was in and out trying to play and deal with it, but was never a hundred percent,” Faulkner said.
At many of the skill positions, the Wildcats will have to rely on younger players who make up for in talent what they lack in experience. One of those players is Josh McCray, an explosive sophomore wide receiver/running back with a high ceiling.
“I think he’s going to be the heaviest recruited kid we’ve had in a long time,” Faulkner said. “He’s got an opportunity to just have one of those crazy years.”
The biggest question mark offensively for the Wildcats is the most dangerous question mark to have, the blocking up front. Enterprise will have to find a way to replace all five starters on the offensive line.
Tasked with that challenge are center Ryan Page, guards Michael Cox and Hudson Warren and tackles Payton Cornett-Adams and Fernando Diaz.
Defensively , the Wildcats are bringing back several starters from last season, including defensive backs Jayden Desir and Romaine McFarland and defensive end Gabe Window.
The strength of the Wildcat defense might be the linebackers, where starters KD McCray, Anthony Calloway, Robert Ellis and Xander O’Connell all return to the field.
Faulkner said Ellis and Desir are two players that are poised to make an impact this season.
Of Ellis, Faulkner said he is impressed with his development and maturity and “thinks Ellis has an opportunity to be an incredible football player.”
Of Desir, Faulkner said he thinks there’s an opportunity to have a college-talent corner “when he gets his eye-discipline and his consistency figured out.”
Enterprise will definitely count on veteran leadership to anchor their defense. Young players will be asked to step up as the ‘Cats adjust to major turnover in the coaching staff.
Of the six new assistant coaches that will roam the sidelines, five of them work on the defensive side of the ball. In other words, every single defensive coaching position is filled by someone new, including the defensive coordinator slot, where Tracy Buckhannon has been tapped to replace Hayden Stockton.
New safeties coach Zack Holmes will also serve as special teams coordinator.
In football, any player can have a season-changing impact from any position on the field, and it’s not hard to tell that Faulkner knows that.
It’s also not difficult to see the love and respect Faulkner has for his players, as he mentioned much of the roster by first and last name when it came to players who could stand out this season.
“There are a lot of guys who could have big years for us,” he said. “But football is a game where every position is dependent upon another position. It’s about the team.”
Faulkner wants his players to have toughness, passion and a love for the game: three traits, according to Faulkner, that make players great.
“Those are the three things a guy needs to worry about before he worries about how talented he is, or what number he wears, or what position he plays,” he said. “Before any of that matters, you’ve got to have those three things.
“You’ve got to have a deep love for this game. Because it is tough. It is hard on you, and if there’s not something about you when you wake up in the morning and you look in the morning and you see a football player – then it’s going to be hard to be good in this game.”
Maybe it takes experiencing something tough to get better at facing tough situations. If that’s the case, this offseason – and the GORUCK challenge – have sharpened the players and gotten them battle-ready.
Faulkner said when the players arrived at the GORUCK challenge, there were many who didn’t believe they could ever do it.
Then, they did.
And Faulkner said he was proud “just to see that smile and that self-confidence and that sense of achievement they had when they completed it.”
WILDCATS AT A GLANCE
>> Head coach: David Faulkner (7th year at Enterprise, 36-30; 11th year as a head coach, 68-48)
>> 2017 record: 2-8 overall, 1-5 Class 7A, Region 2
>> 2017 results: Dothan (W, 24-17); Northview (L, 22-23); Prattville # (L, 21-45); Jeff Davis # (L, 35-38); at Auburn # (L, 17-48); at Theodore (L, 0-39); Central-Phenix City # (L, 7-55); at Smiths-Station # (W, 42-8); at Demopolis (L, 7-33); at R.E. Lee # (L, 27-49)
>> Points scored/per game: 202/20.2
>> Points allowed/per game: 355/35.5
>> Returning offensive starters (6): QB Grant Thornton (Sr., 6-1, 185); RB Maurice Hick (Sr., 6-0, 215); RB Tre Robinson (Sr., 5-9, 227); TE Mason Jeffers (Sr., 6-3, 220); OL Fernando Diaz (Jr., 6-3, 270); OL Payton Cornett-Adams (Sr., 6-3, 265)
>> Returning defensive starters (8): DL Gabe Window (Sr., 6-0, 265); LB Robert Ellis (Jr., 6-1, 205); LB KD McCray (Jr., 6-0, 195); LB Tyler VanAlstine (Jr., 5-10, 205); LB Anthony Calloway (Jr., 6-0, 225); DB Romaine McFarland (Jr., 6-1, 180); DB Jayden Desire (Jr., 5-9, 175); DB King Johnson (Jr., 6-2, 175)
Aug. 23 (Thur) at Dothan
Aug. 31 Charles Henderson
Sept. 7 Auburn #
Sept. 14 Smiths Station #
Sept. 21 at Prattville #
Sept. 28 at Northview
Oct. 5 at Central-Phenix City #
Oct. 12 Off
Oct. 19 R.E. Lee #
Oct. 25 (Thur) at Jeff Davis
Nov. 2 Theodore
# Denotes region contest