HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - For the past few falls, Hattiesburg High School defensive back A.J. Bullock had a hand in turning the Tigers into one of the football powers of the Pine Belt.
Now, after a run that included 27 wins in 28 games, Bullock and the Tigers are banking on the lessons learned during that stretch will serve them well during a 2019 season of major retooling.
“We’ve been working at it this summer, getting ready for the year,” said Bullock, who was selected Hattiesburg’s “Player of the Pine Belt.” "People, there’re a lot of doubts because we lost a lot of talent.
“But I know the guys on this team, We played together in ninth grade, and we were pretty good. Now, we’re back together again.”
And everyone will have to step up because not only is the gap between ninth-grade football and Hattiesburg’s varsity schedule as wide as the Mississippi River, but the predominant color for the purple-and-gold, at least early in 2019, will be green.
- The Tigers return one offensive player from the starting 11 on offense a year ago. That includes one of the most dynamic playmakers to grace D. I. Patrick Stadium, quarterback Jarod “Snoop” Conner.
“I reminded our team, before spring ball and, after spring ball, ‘Hey, Snoop ain’t walking through that door guys,’" Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance said. "That’s about 52, 53 touchdowns from last year.
“More importantly, I’ve only got 15 percent of my scoring coming back.”
Jordan Willis and J.J. Powell are competing for the starting quarterback job. Jamal Donaldson, Nakkari Gray and Courtland Harris are expected to see time at running back.
- Bullock will be one of a handful of defensive players with any decent amount of experience, including linebackers Cedric McGill and Tomacio Robinson and cornerback Jacquez Andrews.
- Vance said two ninth graders likely will be in the starting lineup.
- Four assistants, including both coordinators, moved up the coaching ladder at jobs elsewhere.
“But, look, players graduate," Vance said. “Coaches come and go all the time. But the culture of our program, the expectations, they haven’t changed. It’s a different group of guys, a lot of new names, but the expectations are the same. We’re not going to lower the bar. The standard is the standard.”
The Tigers are the defending Region 4-5A champions. Hattiesburg won a 2017 South State championship before falling in the Class 5A state title game to West Point, then ran the regular season unbeaten in 2018 before being knocked out of the playoffs in the second round by eventual South State champion West Jones.
The Tigers lost 54 seniors from those teams, 28 in 2017 and 26 in 2018. Twenty-one of those players are playing football at junior or senior college, Vance said.
Vance said he is well aware of the challenges ahead, but that he will be asking his veterans to hold the fort while their younger and less experienced teammates get up to speed.
“A.J.'s a team player, by any stretch of the imagination,” Vance said. “He’s accepted his role, and is open-minded. He’s done whatever has needed to be done to help his team be successful. He’s probably put on 20 to 30 pounds since he got here, gotten a lot stronger. He’s definitely gotten better, skill-wise. He’s put in a lot of work with his position coaches over the last couple of years.
“We’re going to lean on those seniors to be leaders and do what we expect seniors to do. We’re going to put them in position, and then expect them to handle it the right way.”
The 6-foot, 175-pound Bullock said he’s ready for his role.
“Everybody’s used to winning and putting in some hard work,” Bullock said. “That hasn’t changed. Time will tell.”
Hattiesburg opens the 2019 season at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, at Petal High School.