By Gabriel Stovall
RIVERDALE, Ga. — Dorwyn Lyles came into his first season as head football coach at Drew intent to keep things as close as possible to what his predecessor and program founder Jarrett Laws initiated.
By most accounts it would seem that it turned out well enough.
Lyles guided the Titans to a 7-4 season and first round state playoff appearance in 2014. Just the second time in the program’s six year history that such milestones have been reached.
But Lyles isn’t necessarily taking the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to year number two of his tenure. And that’s not a slight to his predecessor either.
Consider it more of a sign that Lyles is finding his way again as a head coach.
“Man, if you don’t learn how to adapt and change, you’re going to die,” Lyles said. “Nothing stays the same forever. You’ve gotta be constantly evolving to get better. Coach Laws, you know, when he was here, he set forth a good set of principals and established some great things and I was privileged to work on that staff, but we’re definitely going to do some things that will kind of fit more of my mold.”
Lyles’ mold in a word? Grinding.
“Just the daily grind of things,” he elaborated. “I’m a grind it type of guy and I want to get the kids to be that as well.”
That’s why players can find Lyles and his staff — all brand new, save himself and the offensive line coach — out on the field ripping up old grass and putting down new sod on the practice field. The practice field makeover will include parts of the old playing surface being pulled up from Drew’s Southern Crescent Stadium to make room for new field turf.
And although replacing practice fields may not be an official part of Lyles’ job description, he doesn’t mind doing it — especially if it helps drive home Lyles’ work ethic mantra into the hearts of his kids.
“Out here trying to get the field situation better, out here putting down sod,” Lyles said,” Hoepfully they’ll see me out here grinding and working and they’ll put forth that same kind of effort in their play.”
At least one senior, 6-foot-4 wideout Bryson Duckworth, says he’s definitely getting the message.
During a recent practice, Duckworth looked out of place doing running back drills with guys who were lower to the ground and more compact in their frame than he is.
In truth, however, Duckworth said he was right where he belonged.
“We don’t have a receivers coach right now because he’s over coaching the track team,” Duckworth said. “But that doesn’t mean the receivers can’t work with the running backs to get better at what we do. We’ll all have to step up. Just because we lost one of our best offensive players doesn’t mean our offense can’t be good at what we do.”
That offensive player in question is soon-to-graduate senior Marquis Terry. The 5-foot-9, 180 pound tailback electrified the Southern Crescent last year after rushing for 1,883 yards and 18 rushing scores on just 211 carries. That equates to an 8.9 yard-per-carry average, one of the best in the Southern Crescent in 2014.
Terry registered three 200-plus yard performances, including a ridiculous 403 yard, four-touchdown outing against Starr’s Mill.
Lyles is well acquainted with the likelihood that a running back by committee approach will probably be needed to help fill such a void in 2015.
“Certainly that kind of player is going to be hard to replace,” Lyles said. “But that means guys like Quarterman Sloan, who touched the ball a lot for us last year, will have to be more productive. Joseph (Newman) the quarterback is going to have to be more productive. Bryson (Duckworth) our receiver is going to have to be more productive.”
And Lyles believes those players have more than ample tools to assume such productivity. Newman, a rising senior, threw for 1,505 yards and 24 touchdowns to just five interceptions last season. He completed a decently efficient 57 percent of his passes.
Fifteen of those caught balls went to Duckworth, and 12 of those catches were for scores. It was a part of his 356 receiving yards on the season. He and Sloan return as Drew’s top pass catchers, and Duckworth believes, with the combination of a more experienced quarterback and receivers, the offense is poised to air it out even more this season.
“Our running backs are really like receivers out there in some ways,” said Duckworth, who has a football scholarship offer from Mercer. “So I think we’re going to have plenty of opportunities to lean toward throwing the ball this year until the next running back develops.”
As for Duckworth’s personal goals for 2015, it’s worth noting that he mentions getting 15 pancake blocks before he says anything about wanting “at least 20 receptions.”
“Just because I’m a receiver doesn’t mean I don’t have to block,” he said. “Being able to get out and block as a receiver just gives you a chance to make a play just because. It gives coaches something else to look at. I’ll do whatever I can to help my team win.”
Ultimately, such talk is the kind of approach Lyles said will be needed to match the success of his year number one of his tenure.
“We’re excited about the opportunity and potential for what we could be as we see more kids out here willing to fill in the holes from kids who are graduating from last season,” Lyles said. “We feel good about the direction we’re going, and we’ll have to keep going. Just because you make the first round of the state playoffs last season and were successful doesn’t mean anything if you don’t come back this year and improve on that.”