Pike Liberal Arts is coming off an excellent 10-2 season, but head coach Gene Allen is quick to point out the Patriots were good in every sport last year.
“Final Four in basketball, state champions in baseball,” Allen noted, crediting a stellar senior class that featured a number of two- and three-sport standouts. “This year’s senior class is not really huge, but the ones we have are really good players.
“We expect big things from them. They’re very smart as a group. Now, they’ve got some big shoes to fill. Last year our seniors were good leaders and were very successful. These guys will have to carry that over.”
There are familiar faces returning. Allen listed five returning starters on offense and seven on defense, but noted several names could have been added.
“We played a lot of guys last year,” the coach said.
Chip Faircloth, a starter at linebacker in 2018, will be one of the running backs. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior started the final five or six games at running back last season after Cody Hollis was injured.
“He ended up with 800 yards rushing,” Allen said of Faircloth. “He had some big games for us. He’s just a great kid, a smart kid. He’s got, like, a 33 on the ACT. He knows what to do and works really hard.”
To be sure, Faircloth won’t be the only guy in the rotation. The Patriots spread the ball around in the backfield and at wide receiver in their run-first spread attack.
“We ended up with a little over 4,000 yards rushing,” Allen said. “We’ve got some skill guys.”
Several listed wide receivers could also carry the ball. Senior Davis Allen and junior Scott Taylor Renfroe were starting receivers last season. Sophomore Jayden Jordan played more as the season went on. Levi Sikes, a returning starter in the secondary, will play more on offense, also.
A couple newcomers are also in the mix.
“Connor Cox and Keanu Wiggins, they moved in,” the coach said. “Connor came from Highland Home and Keanu came from Ariton. They’ve both been really pleasant surprises. They’re good athletes. Connor was a backup quarterback at Highland. We’ll work him there some, but he’s also got outstanding hands and runs good routes, so we moved him out there.”
Keanu’s brother, Indy Wiggins, and Drew Nelson, both sophomores, are battling for the quarterback job.
“Drew’s a big baseball player. Indy’s about a month and a half ahead of him as far as work. Drew’s been playing baseball tournaments this summer,” Allen said. “Both are doing a really good job. Both are going to be on the field somewhere.”
First-time football player Javon Christian, a junior, is also working at quarterback, but his athletic ability could have him at almost any skill position, Allen said.
“Right now, he’s more of a defensive player. He looks like a very good cornerback because he’s so athletic, but he can play anywhere on offense,” the coach said.
All that skill will be playing behind an offensive line that returns three starters, led by senior Jaquavian Johnson, who can play anywhere.
“He plays guard, center, defensive end or defensive tackle,” Allen said of the 6-foot, 205 pound Johnson. “The last playoff game last year he ended up at center. He’s very versatile, has good feet, moves real well. He’s a strong kid and he loves to work out, too.”
Roughan Price (6-4, 250) and Holt Steed (6-1, 200), two more seniors, return on the offensive line.
“Holt’s another one that’s very versatile. He played some at center and played guard and tackle. That’s a big plus for us,” Allen said. “Roughan’s the biggest kid we’ve got. He plays a little O-line, a little D-line.”
Two sophomores, Bubba Dean and Frankie Jefcoat, will complete the line.
“Frankie actually started our playoff game against Glenwood last year as a ninth grader,” Allen said, adding Jefcoat will likely start at Mike linebacker. “He’s a tough kid. A lot of people in this area remember Jay Jefcoat, who used to coach at Troy. Frankie’s his grandson.
“And Bubba (Dean) has had a good offseason. He’s worked hard in the weight room. We’ve got to work his feet a little more and get his hips lower.”
Defensively, many of the Patriots will be playing both ways. Nick O’Brien returns at Will linebacker and will line up next to Jefcoat inside. Faircloth is back as an outside linebacker.
The Patriots should have an experienced secondary with juniors Jackson Senn and Sikes joining Allen as returning starters. Jayden Jordan and Javon Christian may also start in the back end and Alex Henderson should be in the mix, as well.
Johnson and Steed are back on the defensive front and Price will join them up front.
“We’ve got a lot of kids back with experience,” Allen said about the defense. “We were really good last year. We only averaged giving up 10, 11 points a game last year. Glenwood kind of exploited us in the playoff game. We had lost our starting center. That was a tough week of practice. Three linemen got a virus that week. We never had a day of practice with the same linemen. It was awful.”
Renfroe is back handling most of the kicking duties – and he could be a weapon.
“He’s been working really hard,” Allen said. “He went to kicking camp in Wisconsin. His leg has gotten a lot stronger. Last year he only missed one PAT kick. He and Holt could both punt.”
Allen said Monroe Academy remains the region opponent everyone else will have to knock off. He also said Northside Methodist keeps growing its program and has a lot of talent coming back.
Staying healthy, as is the case for every school, is a key, the coach said.
“That’s what really killed us last year,” he said. “If we get a kid hurt, it’s likely to affect offense and defense. And not only that, you’re moving other guys around, too.”
He said another key to the season was avoiding turnovers.
“If we don’t turn the ball over I feel pretty good about our chances,” the coach said.
PATRIOTS AT A GLANCE
>> Head coach: Gene Allen (7th year at Pike Liberal Arts; 37-30; 24th year as a head coach, 126-126)
>> 2018 record: 10-2 overall, 4-1 in AISA AAA Region 2, first round of AAA state playoffs
>> 2018 results: Morgan Academy (W, 20-14, OT); at Crenshaw Christian (W, 24-7); at Freeport (Fla.) (W, 41-28); at Northside Methodist # (W, 45-17); Macon-East Academy # (W, 10-8); Lee-Scott Academy (W, 35-0); Abbeville Christian (W, 65-13); at Fort Dale Academy # (W, 49-0); Monroe Academy # (L, 0-28); Success Unlimited # (W, 7-6); at Lakeside School (W, 28-21). STATE PLAYOFFS: Glenwood School (L, 7-50)
>> Points scored/per game: 331/27.6
>> Points allowed/per game: 192/16.0
>> Returning offensive starters (5): WR Davis Allen (Sr., 6-0, 180); RB Chip Faircloth (Sr., 6-2, 200); OL Jaquavian Johnson (Sr., 6-0, 205); OL Holt Steed (Sr., 6-1, 200); OL Roughan Price (Sr., 6-4, 250).
>> Returning defensive starters (7): DL Jaquavian Johnson (Sr., 6-0, 205); DL Holt Steed (Sr., 6-1, 200); B Chip Faircloth (Sr., 6-2, 200); LB Nick O’Brien (Sr., 6-0, 185); DB Davis Allen (Sr., 6-0, 180); DB Jackson Senn (Jr., 5-9, 175); DB Levi Sikes (Jr., 6-1, 185).
Aug. 23 at Morgan
Aug. 30 Crenshaw Christian
Sept. 6 Freeport, Fla.
Sept. 13 Northside Methodist #
Sept. 20 at Macon-East #
Sept. 27 at Lee-Scott
Oct. 4 at Abbeville Christian
Oct. 11 Fort Dale #
Oct. 18 at Monroe #
Oct. 24 (Thu) at Success Unlimited #
Nov. 1 Lakeside School
# Denotes region contest