Are changes at The King's Academy enough to make the postseason?
It’s impossible to miss the football makeover at The King’s Academy.
The Lions’ logo is ubiquitous around the school, from signage near the team’s field to the concrete floor of its new locker room. Up a hill on the Seymour campus, Matt Lowe can’t help but smile during a preseason practice. The head coach’s rebranding of TKA as a football success story took some major steps forward in 2013 with a 5-5 debut campaign and the emergence of a record-setting back in Jason Maduafokwa.
But beneath the glitz, Lowe knows there’s still work to be done.
“I think anything less than a playoff berth and we’re all going to be disappointed,” Lowe said. “We know we’ve got to close a major gap. The three teams out of our district that made the playoffs I would argue are three of the top five teams in the state in our classification. They’re extremely good.”
Those three teams — Donelson Christian Academy, Friendship Christian and Webb School — outscored the Lions by 107 points in 2013. How TKA does against those powerhouses this year will show how far Lowe’s program has truly come.
“We’re still working on getting that second half,” said Ridge Palmer. “Last year, we’d do great first half and second half we’d all just kind of die down. We’re just trying to get more conditioned, get more reps in, get our bodies in better shape to play that second half.”
A big part of that is becoming a more physical team, Lowe said. He’s emphasizing better hitting on both sides of the ball this preseason. The team’s small roster size — 31 players this year — means Lowe can’t have his players beat up on each other for two hours but he tries to sprinkle in short bursts of intensity in the course of practice. He also picked up an extra scrimmage to put the Lions in more live-action scenarios before the season kicks off on Aug. 22 at Sunbright.
“I see it in the drills we do,” said Maduafokwa. “I see it in the 1-on-1s we have every day. I see the players are getting more into it, like hitting and all, running the ball and lowering their shoulder.”
Maduafokwa remains the most impressive physical player on the field for Lowe at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. The Nigerian native already has a scholarship offer from Austin Peay after a record-breaking junior season and Lowe said he’s grown as much as anyone on the Lions’ roster. TKA’s first 1,000-yard rusher is bigger and stronger and has been absorbing as much football as he can, watching and trying to emulate some of the game’s greats.
Many of the college coaches who passed through campus this spring told Lowe Maduafokwa probably projects as a strong defensive player in college so the senior will play a bigger role on that side of the ball this season.
“He’s a linebacker waiting to happen,” Lowe said. “Anytime you’re talking about guys that are 6-2, 230, 235, that’s what college linebackers look like. As I told him one day, he’s almost outgrown the tailback position.”
Maduafokwa will be complemented by Jordan Romero, a 225-pound linebacker/tight end, on defense that Lowe praised in spring practice. He said the junior has changed his body type, building some muscle to make himself into a perfect fit at linebacker.
Offensively, the Lions should have options besides Maduafokwa, who had 15 touchdowns last year. Besides Palmer and Ben Sexton, who combined for 12 receiving scores last year, the Lions have picked up Hardin Valley Academy transfer Chandler Viscardis.
“We’re excited about him,” Lowe said. “He played a lot of reps for Hardin Valley the last couple of years. Anytime you get a guy, especially at our level, coming from a 6A program that’s been a starter, he’s obviously going to add to that skill position.”
The wide receiver fits in with a prototype player Lowe calls “Mr. Do-It-Alls.” A function of a small-school team is having guys like Isaiah Jeffers and Isaiah Gilmore, who can play multiple skill positions and get touches on the ball in different ways. These utility players may not lead any categories but could have the biggest impact on wins and losses by stuffing the box score.
Jeffers played nearly every snap for the Lions as a freshman, gaining over 500 yards on the ground and through the air while making 39 tackles. Lowe said he’s probably naturally a running back but with Maduafokwa in the backfield, Jeffers is likely to spend just as much time as a threat at receiver.
Gilmore, for the second straight year, could line up at nearly any of the skill positions including quarterback and kick returner. That kind of versatility is what the Lions will depend on.
“We have a lot more skill (players),” Gilmore said. “I think we’re more mature. I know I am, for one. ... I went to a lot of camps. It was good to see the competition and I lifted weights a lot. I guess it’s just mentally, coming from last year, I knew what not to do. Now, I know what to do.”
Who will deliver the ball to all those skilled backs is still a question mark after the graduation of Adam Deatherage. Besides Gilmore, freshmen Jacob Hoffman and Brandon Burgess have been taking snaps at quarterback. Lowe said he’s never had two freshmen quarterbacks as good as those two and TKA may just end up being a multi-QB team when the season kicks off.
Viscardis and Palmer said there are competitions like that for playing time all over the field. If that fierce competitiveness translates to Friday nights, the Lions may indeed be on their way to closing the gap on the district’s big three.
“The intensity that we had last year, that’s what I mostly learned from playing with coach Lowe last year,” Maduafokwa said. “The intensity, you have to be tough and keep going. You have to keep getting in there, keep grinding and all that.”