HATTIESBURG, MS - Hayes Maples kind of got the feeling that football might be his sport pretty much the first time he put on a helmet.
"Pee wees," Maples said. "Since the beginning, I realized I had a love for the game, but I guess I've always been good."
And these days, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior is regarded as one of the best players in the Pine Belt, a hard-hitting middle linebacker who has verbally committed to continue his football career at the University of Southern Mississippi.
"Smart, dedicated, you name it," Oak Grove coach Drew Causey said. "Hayes is a heck of a football player. He has all of the tools to be a great player. Six-three. Two-thirty. Runs a 4.56 (-second) 40 (-yard dash). The last two years, he's had over 100 tackles, led us in tackling.
"Now, he's starting to evolve into more of a leader for us, becoming a lot more vocal and that's something that we need out of him."
Maples, who bumped up from junior varsity to appear in a few games as a ninth-grader, took over a starting job at linebacker as a sophomore before moving to the middle as a junior.
"I looked skinny," Maples said despite weighing 205 pounds two years ago. "I've gotten bigger, just working out in the weight room. I love working out and the grind."
Maples is expected to be a key cog in what should be a talented defense that welcomes back nine starters from a year ago.
"We're extremely fast," Maples said. "Everybody has speed on our defense and that's going to be a key part for our season."
Both starting defensive ends, senior Jared Crumedy and junior Jack Harris, are drawing major Division I attention, while junior Jeric Franklin, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound basketball standout, is expected to help off the edge as well. Senior Jeremiah Pittman and junior Lacarreon Jackson return inside at defensive tackle.
Maples and junior Kade Shannon head a linebacking corps that also features senior Andre Pittman and sophomores Joey Griffith, Graham McCarty and Tyree Jackson.
The secondary features seniors Darrell Luter and Tanner Slay and juniors Ben Johnson and Jarius Reimonenq. Luter started in 2016, while Reimonenq played significant snaps. Johnson saw some snaps in 2016, while Slay moved from quarterback to safety this spring.
On offense, junior Jon Rhys Plumlee returns at quarterback, senior Orlando Simon at running back and senior Kevin Barnett at receiver. Senior Braxton Betts and Maples also are expected to see time at running back, while the receiving corps also will feature senior Deltarus Thompson, junior Kris Jones and sophomore Brandon Hayes, as well as junior Rasaiah Ruffin, who moved from defensive line to tight end.
The line returns both starting tackles in seniors Kylan Carter and Michael Gornak and the Warriors welcome back senior center Caedon Malone, who returns from a knee injury.
Also returning is senior punter/place-kicker Brennan Sobiesk.
Oak Grove is coming off a 5-7 season, the first time since 2000 that the Warriors posted a losing record and the first time since 2012 that they missed the Class 6A playoffs.
"We just need to focus on where we need to be as a team, to getting back to being one of the top programs in the state," Maples said. "We've got to get our confidence back. As soon as we get that first game, that first win, we'll be right back where we need to be."
Causey said a summer of exceptional work habits has the Warriors excited about the season's possibilities.
"We've probably had the best offseason since I got to Oak Grove in '13 (as an assistant)," said Causey, who will be entering his third year as head coach. "The kids have really bought in to what we're doing, and we changed a few things that we were doing to make everything a lot more competitive."
"We've done a lot more competition stuff, and I think it's really paid off for us."