By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
When Vincent Harris was awarded his first head coaching job earlier this year, at Escambia County High School, he knew he faced a formidable task in rebuilding the ECHS program. After his first ECHS team posted a 4-6 record and was competitive in most of its losses, Harris feels confident the first layer of a new foundation has been lain.
In fact, he thought the 2022 Blue Devils did an admirable job, especially under the circumstances surrounding the hiring of their new coach.
The former T.R. Miller assistant, who follows a string of coaches who have tried their luck at rebuilding the school’s football program over the past decade, started out under the gun. He wasn’t hired until June, just a few weeks prior to kickoff of the 2022 season.
“I didn’t get here until June, so I didn’t have any Spring drills with my players,” he explained. “That will be different next year. I’ll be able to work with them in the Spring instead of just getting to know them right before our first game.”
One of the things Harris is most proud of is the way the players almost immediately accepted and adopted his coaching style and philosophy.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the kids,” he said. “They did a good job of fighting to the bitter end. You could tell from watching them that they thought they were going to win every game we played. That mindset is big, something special. It’s a big deal to believe in something.”
He pointed out that his late arrival also prevented him from possibly realizing every coach’s dream, the chance he’ll bump into a student in the school halls who turns out to be a standout athlete.
“When I got here, I didn’t even have a chance to go through the hallways to get players,” Harris recalled. “Now I think there might be a little more recruiting the halls. There’s already been a buzz about more kids coming out.”
If that happens, and if he can solidify ECHS’s feeder program, it will most likely speed up the rebuilding process.
“On a Monday when we’re supposed to be preparing for a playoff game, we will start preparing for next season,” the Blue Devils coach said on October 31. “It’s going to be a process, building a team. I want to try and improve our numbers so we can have a JV (junior varsity) team and we can start getting some of the young kids ready, and we’re not going to have a JV team if we’ve only got 45 players.”
Harris said he plans to have Escambia County Middle School’s program mirror his own, offensively and defensively, so players who later join the varsity squad will already be familiar with all formations, sets and plays.
“We’ve got a lot of things planned,” he said. “I think the kids like what we’re doing. We’re going to keep putting energy into it, keep doing things the right way, keep believing in the kids.”
Another ray of sunshine forcing its way through the ECHS rebuilding cloud is the return of several key players, including those at all the skill positions except quarterback.
Dakota DeSpain, who completed 83 of 177 passes for 1,579 yards and 19 touchdowns and was the team’s third-leading rusher, will graduate, as will several of the offensive linemen. But the team’s backfield and receiver corps will be virtually intact.
“Dakota will be missed; he was a leader, and he did a good job,” Harris said. “We’re losing some pretty good kids, some I expect to get scholarships, but we’re not going to make any excuses. We’ll be a little younger on the offensive line, but we’ll have veterans at all the skill positions except quarterback.”
Second-leading rusher Mason Huggins (349 yards) also graduates, but James Whatley, who led the team with 774 yards and 6 touchdowns, will return as a senior. Jovaughnta Henderson, who scored two rushing TDS and averaged more than 10 yards per carry last year, is also expected to contribute more to the ECHS ground game.
Lorenzo Arnold, who caught 27 passes for 554 yards and 8 touchdowns (and returned a kickoff for a TD), will be back. Henderson, who snagged 12 passes for 229 yards and 2 touchdowns as a sophomore, will be a threat out of the backfield, while Elijah Thomas (25 catches, 464 yards, 4 TD as a junior) and Marrion Hooks (9-162-3 as a sophomore) will also be prime targets for whomever steps into the quarterback’s role.
“Even with our quarterback leaving, I think that, with the offense I run, we can dink and dunk enough that it won’t kill us to not have a great quarterback,” Harris said.
Defensively, the biggest losses will be Huggins (52 tackles, second on the team) and Lebron Hooks (9 interceptions). But leading tackler Exavion Bradley (59 stops, including 10 for a loss and three sacks) and young Henderson (42 tackles) are expected to be among the leaders on defense.
Harris, who thanked the entire community for it support, said he is a man on a mission and that with enough time, he feels the ECHS program will rise again.
“My first year was pretty good,” he said. “We improved the team’s record by two games. (ECHS was 2-8 each of the past two years.) I came to put some hope back in this place, and this first year is just a beginning.”