While most high school football coaches were sleeping the night before the start of fall camp, The King’s Academy coach Jonathan Sellers was weaving through defenders while filling in at quarterback during a drill at 1:30 a.m.
TSSAA preseason regulations permitted teams to begin full practices on June 29, and Sellers couldn’t wait. The Lions hit the field at midnight.
The late-night practice was more than another step toward TKA reaching its potential.
It was also an opportunity for Sellers to continue molding the program to his liking after being named the interim coach midway through last season and getting hired after winning two of the Lions’ final four games to reach the Division II-A playoffs.
Check and check.
The Lions look like a team that can make some noise in 2019, and if they do, Sellers and the enthusiasm he brings to the sideline will be a big reason why.
“A bunch of people say that they aren’t going to come out here and coach effort, but I’m not one of those guys,” Sellers told The Daily Times. “We have to keep them going 100% all the time, and if they see us giving a lot of energy on the field, they usually respond to that and pick up that game because they don’t want the 24-year-old coach beating them.”
Sellers admits it helps being young — “My joints are still good” — but that’s a fitting characteristic for the leader of a team one year removed from hitting the reset button.
The King’s Academy reached the Division II-A state quarterfinals in 2017, but former coach Matt Lowe left after the season to take the helm at Powell. A talented and large group of seniors graduated, and Les Greer, who took over for Lowe before resigning after an 0-5 start last season, was left to fill holes with inexperienced players.
Those players now have 10 games under their belts, and with experience comes confidence and higher expectations.
“We want to be playing in late November,” senior running back and linebacker Evan Whaley said. “We’ve put in the work, we have the players and we know what we’re doing. We’re ready and we have a lot of motivation coming off that seven-loss season last year.”
The Lions lost those first five games by an average 35.8 points. A lack of competitiveness opened the door for Sellers to take over. The King’s Academy extended that losing streak to seven games before defeating Donelson Christian Academy and Ezell-Harding to sneak in the playoffs, where it lost to Clarksville Academy.
Still, that spurt of momentum provided a glimmer of hope, and the Lions have built on it throughout the offseason. Every player believes they could finish the season with a trip to Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium for a shot at the Division II-A state championship.
“Anybody who shows up to the classroom for a math test and doesn’t think they’re going to do too well, usually doesn’t do too well,” Sellers said. “If you can get them prepared and get them believing that they can do well, usually it goes a lot better.
“We continuously tell these kids that this team has some talent and we can do as much as we want to do. It’s up to us to put in the work so that when we show up on Friday nights to take that test, we’re prepared and ready to play.”
The Lions return more than half their starters on both sides of the ball, but a group of newcomers has infused a wealth of talent to a battle-tested core.
Former Hardin Valley and Grace Christian quarterback Zac Acuff edged out junior Nathan Hoffman and freshman Garrett Weekly to become the Lions’ starting quarterback. His blindside will be protected by J’marion Gooch, who is 6-foot-6 and weighs 290 pounds.
Eighth-grader Marshaun Bowers gives TKA another playmaker to pair alongside returning wide receivers Nakelin Mcafee, Jachim Williams and Zack Tilley.
Abdul-Malik Sholanke, a transfer from Rabun Gap, Georgia, is out until September with a knee injury, but his return will provide an immediate boost to a thin linebacking corps.
“Obviously, you want to collect as much talent as possible, and kids that were on the team show up and see these new kids and it creates more competition,” Sellers said. “These kids aren’t showing up and practice and thinking, ‘Last year I was a starter on Friday night and I’m going to be a starter again this year.’”
“There’s a new energy that everybody has to show up and work or there’s a chance you won’t end up on the field.”
The buzz inside and around the The King’s Academy program is a testament to the job Sellers has done in less than a year at the helm.
Don’t sleep on the Lions.
“He’s brought a completely different energy,” Whaley said. “He has stepped into practice and played with us, he’s had fun with us and he’s goofed off with us. He’s just been great to have here.”