In his 17 years of coaching high school football, Tommy Jones has never faced this many hurdles all at once.
As head of the program at new Hall County school Cherokee Bluff, Jones has to keep tabs on prospective players from multiple high schools and middle schools throughout the area. His assistant coaches are spread out even farther and still have to juggle responsibilities at their current schools.
To top it all off, Jones’ fledgling football team is sharing facilities with the squad at Flowery Branch High, which will be the site of Cherokee Bluff when it opens this fall.
“The logistical challenges are many,” said Jones, who previously coached at Dacula and Lumpkin County. “But we also understand that this is all short-term. In the near future, all of our coaches and players will be under the same roof here.”
Over the last few weeks, the Bears have come one step closer to making that vision a reality.
Cherokee Bluff wrapped up its first-ever round of spring practices Saturday, May 19, in Flowery Branch, ending the first phase of the program’s development.
Jones said 56 high school students and about 35 kids from middle schools participated in spring drills, which he believes have set the team on the right track.
“It has been extremely fun, getting a chance to work with a great group of young men that believes Cherokee Bluff can be great,” Jones said. “Their energy, attitude and effort is contagious. And we as coaches have the unique opportunity to watch these young men grow up in front of our eyes.
“For the majority of the team, we have a chance to watch them play for the next three or four years.”
Most of those players — who hail from Flowery Branch, Johnson and middle schools within Cherokee Bluff’s district — will be young, Jones said.
With such an inexperienced group of kids from different backgrounds, Jones placed extra emphasis on fundamentals during spring practices, though he made sure to hammer home another key aspect of laying the roots for a program.
“Our biggest objective in spring was to build relationships with the players, to begin developing trust and camaraderie,” Jones said.
Aside from that, the Bears’ spring sessions looked like they would for any other team.
Jones and his staff focused on the basics of blocking and tackling, eager to develop and evaluate their players’ talent.
While all teams assess individual skill during the spring, it was especially true of the Cherokee Bluff coaches who had never worked with these players before.
They had only 10 days to do it, too, making spring practice a critical time for a program trying to gain solid footing with the regular season just three months away.
“We’re still early in that (evaluation) process right now,” Jones said.
“I couldn’t fully tell you what our offense and defense will be in the fall until we have the opportunity to better understand how to accentuate our players’ strengths.”
That process will continue throughout the summer, during which Jones expects the buzz surrounding his young program to grow even bigger.
“With a new situation at Cherokee Bluff, there is a ton of excitement, energy and enthusiasm,” he said. “This is a fantastic community that has already rallied around the school and football program.”
Jones also praised his the members of his coaching staff, with whom he has met over the last four months to make sure spring practice went smoothly.
Now their challenge is to build on the last week and a half of work and begin molding the Bears into a contender.
They’ll face an uphill battle in the seven-team Region 7-3A, which features powerhouse Greater Atlanta Christian along with fellow area schools East Hall and North Hall.
Jones showed the ability to create success at Dacula, where he went 37-22 over the last five seasons. The Falcons won at least one playoff game four times under Jones, who wrapped up his stint at the school with back-to-back region titles.
Despite the success elsewhere, Jones said he “always had an itch” to launch a program at a brand new school.
After a spring full of challenges, he’s starting to see some progress toward that goal.
“There’s definitely not a manual for starting a first-year program,” Jones said with a laugh. “ … I’ve had a couple friends in the profession, like Andy Dyer at Archer and Shannon Jarvis at Mill Creek, who started programs from scratch. I’ve leaned heavily on them through this process.
“But I’ve really enjoyed because it forces you to get back to the basics of coaching. You have to communicate everything from the ground level and make sure you’re teaching effectively and communicating well. In this situation, you can’t take things for granted.”