BUZZING AROUND: Boosted by Lancaster's revamped culture, well-conditioned Academy flies to 2-0 start
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
STRONG START: Senior defensive end/offensive tackle Tyler Lambert (left) and junior inside linebacker/running back Darion Franklin have helped Academy get off to a 2-0 start with first-year head coach Chris Lancaster after the Bumblebees went 2-8 last season. Lambert has a team-high 17 tackles and Franklin has 16 stops for a defense that's allowed only 12.5 points and 184.5 yards per game in wins over rival Rogers and Clifton. Franklin also has an interception and has scored two touchdowns. Academy plays its home opener against the Groesbeck Goats (2-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at John Glover Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
LITTLE RIVER-ACADEMY – In 2019, Academy won two football games. This year, with close, low-scoring road wins over Rogers and Clifton, the Bumblebees matched that victory total by Sept. 4.
Academy will shoot for a 3-0 start in its home opener against the Groesbeck Goats (2-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at John Glover Stadium.
Although the Bees' turnaround can somewhat be attributed to their core players having another year of experience and maturing both physically and emotionally, returning players such as senior defensive end/offensive tackle Tyler Lambert and junior linebacker/running back Darion Franklin say it's actually much more than that.
After Chris Lancaster became Academy's head coach during the offseason following six years as Troy's offensive coordinator, he set out to instill important values in the Bees' players, perhaps most notably that working hard and having fun don't have to be mutually exclusive things.
And although this season still is in its early stages, Academy's players have bought into what Lancaster's tried to sell them – including a commitment to conditioning and physical toughness – and the Bees are playing with an energy, spirit and focus that they admit was previously lacking.
“The big thing is culture change. We had a lot of talent last year, but we didn't have the want to play that a lot of these younger guys possess,” said Lambert, one of Academy's slew of two-way starters. “I think it comes down to the coaching staff. There's a lot more motivation. There's a want to play for these coaches, and that's a huge thing. Little guys are flying around and making big-time plays. I think that's the key, the culture change.”
Franklin, another two-way starter whose 16 tackles are one behind Lambert's team-leading total, said the impact of Lancaster's coaching methods has been the driving force behind the Bees' early success.
“I just like the way that we play for each other and for Coach Lancaster. He came in and demanded respect, and we all respected him after that,” said Franklin, who had an 8-yard touchdown run and a 60-yard TD reception from senior quarterback Jerry Cephus in Academy's season-opening 20-15 win at rival Rogers two weeks ago.
To provide more context about the Bees' ongoing culture change, Lambert provided an example from Academy's 17-10 victory at Clifton last Friday.
“They had a 51-yard run on the first play. Last year, facing adversity, we would have crumbled. There would have been a lot of crumbling,” said Lambert, a first-team all-district defensive end in 2019. “This year, we stood up and (forced) a three-and-out right there and held them to a field goal. That's the changes. We've made stops. Against Rogers it was fourth-down situations and stuff like that.”
According to Franklin and Lambert, Academy's new defensive strategy is paying off because the linemen – seniors Lambert, Wyatt Gardner (11 tackles) and the recently returned Tanner Rambeau plus junior Trenton Flanagan and sophomore Clayton Lawson – have been disruptive enough along the line of scrimmage for inside linebackers Franklin and sophomore Lane Ward (15 tackles) and outside linebackers Cephus (12 stops) and junior John Tomasek to roam around and make plays.
“We love the big guys. They get down and play dirty for us,” Franklin said. “We just do what we want to do, really.”
Added Lambert: “I think we've changed the way we're freeing up our linebackers a lot more. It's a lot more free-flowing now.”
Franklin and seniors Jaylin McWilliams and Kollin Mraz have one interception each for Academy, which has allowed 12.5 points and 184.5 yards per game.
Franklin and Lambert commended the defensive play of three sophomores: safety Scout Brazeal, Ward and Lawson.
“I mean, that kid's a buck forty-five but he's going to come down and make tackles,” Lambert said of Ward. “Likewise with Lawson. He's 5-9 and we put him in there against monsters, and he goes.”
NEW MAN, NEW PLAN: Chris Lancaster has emphasized physical conditioning and the usage of two-way starters in his first season as Academy's head coach following six years as offensive coordinator at Troy. The Bumblebees are 2-0 midway through their non-district schedule. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Operating with limited numbers and quality depth, Lancaster has employed a bevy of two-way starters – Cephus, Franklin, Gardner, Lambert, fullback/defensive end Flanagan and receivers/defensive backs McWilliams (two touchdown catches), Mraz and junior Blake Bundy (also Academy's kicker and punter) – out of necessity.
“They've done a great job. And we've told them from Day 1 that they're going to have to do it for us to be able to put our best ball club out there, our best product,” Lancaster said. “And that's with the hopes that some younger guys who are not as experienced will step up. And when they can help us to relieve some of that and take up some of the slack, that's what we're trying to strive for.
“Where we are deficient is total numbers, and so for us to have a very efficient, good-on-good practice, it's very hard because our good on offense is usually our good on defense. But what's encouraging is we do have some young kids stepping it up. That's the process.”
In order to rely on so many two-way players, Lancaster made physical conditioning a huge priority in the weeks leading up to the season.
“The first game (at Rogers), I definitely thought we were in great condition for this time of year. It was hot that night and a lot of our kids were playing on both sides,” said Lancaster, who was Bruceville-Eddy's head coach from 2009-13 after coaching 18 seasons in college football as an assistant. “We elected as a coaching staff (in August) to practice in the afternoons, not mornings. Therefore, being on our (artificial) turf from 4 to 6:30 p.m. every day, we were getting pretty gassed. But then as (the heat is) breaking, you go into the conditioning phase, and we had to do it.”
However, Lancaster had the good sense to keep his players guessing when it came to conditioning, and the result was that they didn't consider it a chore as much as an opportunity to be challenged and grow.
“Coach Lancaster makes conditioning interesting. It's not the same thing every day. It's not, 'Line up on the goal line and run to the 40.' It's different stuff and you never know what to expect. You always have an end goal in sight,” Lambert said. “I feel more tired during the first quarter, then I get that second wind and feel more energized in the second quarter onward. It's the conditioning we've been doing.
“When you get tired and you get lazy, that's when you get hurt. You play scared, you get hurt. This year we're hitting people and we're making tackles. That's something that was absent last year.”
Franklin, who like Lambert said he never asks to take a snap off, added: “You stay conditioned. You never lose it. You just keep going.”
Lancaster said his experience informs him on how to handle the crucial task of getting and keeping players in ideal game shape.
“I just use common sense. I've got a lot of background as a track coach, CrossFit, just different things,” Lancaster said. “As a player, I didn't like doing the same old, ho-hum, 'here we go again.' I would make (conditioning) interesting. I think they can see that it's helping them and benefiting them. All kids think conditioning is punishment, but it's not.
“And Coach (Eddie) Dewbre and our defensive staff and Coach (R.J.) Bacon and our offensive staff, they stress tempo in practice. We want to practice fast and move around from drill to drill and not walk around and be slugs, so to speak. And so with that, you create an environment and a culture, and the premise behind that is you hope Friday night is much slower than a practice environment.”
Academy's offense hasn't yet hit its full stride, averaging 18.5 points and 282 yards per game, but that was to be expected early on as four freshmen are playing up front: starting center Caden Berry plus Adam Caddell, Jake Jones and tight end/fullback Tyler Burnett.
“We'll be fine. We're still young, we're still developing. It's a whole new offense from what we had. The system is totally different,” Franklin said. “And we're playing freshmen on the offensive line.”
“Those kids are 14 years old, going against destroyers,” Lambert said. “As practice goes on, I feel like we're establishing our running game better up front, and it's only going to get better as we go.”
Franklin and Lambert have no trepidation about dual-threat veteran quarterback Cephus (414 passing yards, four touchdowns) also throwing his body around at outside linebacker.
“Jerry's a dog. He will not lay down to you. It just won't happen,” Franklin said of Cephus, a fellow starting guard on Academy's 30-win basketball team that reached the Class 3A Region III quarterfinals last season. “Jerry will get in your face, talk to you however he wants to and then hit you on the next play.”
Said Lambert: “Jerry's mean on defense, and then he's throwing the football around. I don't (worry about him getting injured), because he's not scared. He knows what he's doing.”
Academy picked up another experienced player when defensive end/tight end Rambeau rejoined the team following the win at Rogers, with Lancaster welcoming back the sturdy senior and former district basketball MVP after Rambeau completed the “Bumblebee Maker,” the head coach's mandatory conditioning program.
“I'm really close buddies with Tanner and his main thing was he was not happy about the culture (last football season). I understand. I knew that we've got to fix us, and if we fix us, that'll attract him,” Lambert said. “We put a good product on the field (against Rogers), and he wanted in immediately. I went to the sideline and talked to him and he said, 'I'll see you Monday.' I think he had to see it first.”
In its home opener Friday night, Academy battles Groesbeck, another team that went 2-8 last year but has started 2-0 this season. Longtime Texas high school coach Jerry Bomar is in the second season of his second stint at Groesbeck, whose Goats he guided to the 3A state championship in 1991 before he went 30-14-1 in four years at Killeen from 1992-95.
Groesbeck beat Mildred 53-6 and defeated Rice 39-14. Two big-play sophomores have fueled the Goats' spread offense: quarterback Allen Lewis and running back Ma'Quay Smith.
With concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering during the first week of school, Academy feels a sense of urgency in its home opener even though District 11-3A Division I action doesn't begin until Sept. 25 at Lorena.
“Especially in today's era with everything going on and all the uncertainty, you've got to take every game (as being important),” Lambert said. “We're going to have the band out there and we've got more capacity for our fans here. We want to show them what we can do.”
Franklin, whose birthday is Friday, said the goal is simple for the revamped Bees: “Play Academy football.”
“We want to win for our seniors,” he said. “You never know. This could be their last game."