This season, BTW will play in Class 1A, with Mitchell taking the field in Class 2A. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Smaller schools playing football in the Shelby County Schools system start with a major disadvantage by sheer numbers. Throw in a pandemic-lost year and the path to gridiron glory becomes even more of a journey against the odds.

Coaches at small schools have a smaller pool of players to draw from. Most schools that play in Class 1A, 2A and 3A normally have no more than 30 players and most must play both offense and defense.

With last season canceled, some players who wanted to play football transferred to a school that was playing football; others graduated.

MASE, for example, had seven seniors last season. This season they return only three players that have ever played organized football.

It will be like starting from the beginning and training the new players on the culture that had been established.

And, then there is reclassification. Reordering by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) set up this:

Class 1A – BTW, Bluff City, MASE, Middle College and Westwood.

Class 2A – Fairley, Freedom Prep, Hillcrest, KIPP, Manassas, MLK, Prep, MAHS, Mitchell and Oakhaven.

Class 3A – Fredrick Douglass, Hamilton, MBA, East, Raleigh Egypt, Sheffield and Trezevant.

The Phoenix of MASE will have the challenging task of fielding a number of players that have never played organized football, said head coach Julius Jackson Jr. (Photo: Terry Davis)

At MASE, head coach Julius Jackson Jr. knows that his mission this season will be difficult, but not impossible. He does not judge a successful season in wins and losses, but by building the characters of young men.

Reflecting on the missed year, Jackson faces having to play a lot of guys that have never really played varsity football.

“You had a lot of guys moving around. There was a lot of uncertainty because of COVID. Hopefully, we can play as much as we can play and let the chips fall as they may.”

Cedric Miller Sr., the head coach for MAHS, has one of the better players in the city coming from the smaller schools. His son, Cedric Miller Jr., has already committed to play for the University of Tennessee next season.

The missed year “helped us with adversity,” Miller said. “That will be a big asset for us this season dealing with adversity. I think we are going to be really good this season, especially on the defensive side of the football.” 

Miller Jr. is a versatile player. Look for him to be used all over the field, including running back, defensive back and wide receiver.

“We are going to move him around this year, because we don’t want the opponents to try to get a key look on him. He is a big part of this, but we have some other guys that are going to help us out,” Coach Miller said.

MAHS will look to transfer Jalen Dale, a 5-feet 11-inch senior, Jalen Shelton, the transfer from Indianapolis, and Kumaro Brown, who will operate as a running back and cornerback for the Lions.

“We are going to have two of the biggest corners in the city besides Freedom Prep,” said Miller.

McKale Jones, the head coach at Freedom Prep Academy, has led the program from the start and has a history of putting together great teams.

 “We have to protect the brand,” Jones said. “We have to keep building and keep motivating the kids. I am a diehard football fanatic.  I love my kids.”

Jones will look to Tyler Woodard – defensive back/wide receiver – and Desi Hemphill – running back/linebacker –to lead this year’s team.

For Jones, keeping a successful program involves employing the RDL model: 

  • R is for the respect he earns from his team because he gives it first to the players. 
  • D stands for discipline. If you have their respect, you are able to instill respect into what they are doing.
  • L is for love as “tough love. I am going to love them like they are one of mines,” he said.