FOOTBALL 2020: With new coach Lancaster, Academy optimistic it can be a factor in grueling district
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
SEASONED PERFORMERS: Wide receiver/defensive back Jaylin McWilliams (left), quarterback/outside linebacker Jerry Cephus and offensive tackle/nose guard Wyatt Gardner are seniors who aim to lead Academy to a Class 3A Division I playoff berth in head coach Chris Lancaster's first season with the Bumblebees. Academy opens its season Friday night at rival Rogers. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Academy senior wide receiver Jaylin McWilliams prepares to catch a long pass during the Bumblebees' Monday practice at John Glover Stadium. McWilliams, district MVP for Academy's 30-win basketball team last season, had 34 receptions for 466 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
LITTLE RIVER-ACADEMY – If there's one sentiment that encapsulates what the Academy Bumblebees plan to be known for during their first football season with head coach Chris Lancaster, senior quarterback Jerry Cephus provided it.
“Effort and heart. We've got to have a lot of heart to get where we want to be,” said Cephus, a third-year varsity player who's also projected to start at outside linebacker. “If we play with heart, I think we can beat any team we play.”
Time will tell how many teams Academy beats, but Lancaster – in his first head coaching role since 2013 – has enjoyed the process of trying to mold his players into a winning group.
“Number one, I like these kids. They're good kids and they've been a joy,” he said. “We've had a good fall camp and had a good scrimmage at Hillsboro. I like the personalities and the leadership we have.
“We're still in the getting-to-know-each-other stage because of COVID-19 this spring. Every day I throw a new wrinkle at them and they don't know how to take me exactly with my personality, but it's been a good transition overall.”
Coming off an injury-marred 2-8 season and seeking their second playoff appearance in three years, the Bumblebees will have to be at their best as they compete for one of the four postseason berths in grueling District 11-3A Division I. The new seven-team league features four teams ranked among the state's top 13 in Class 3A Division I by Texas Football magazine: holdover opponents Rockdale (No. 7), Troy (No. 9) and Cameron Yoe (No. 11) plus No. 13 Lorena, which moved down from 4A Division II.
Avoiding major injuries will be vital for Academy, as Lancaster plans to utilize a slew of two-way starters to keep the Bees' best players on the field as much as possible.
After a successful six-season run as Troy's offensive coordinator, highlighted by the Trojans' 12-2 march to the Region III final last year, Lancaster makes his Academy debut when the Bees travel to battle old rival Rogers at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Merk Field. The Eagles have defeated the Bees two straight seasons after Academy won four straight meetings from 2014-17. Rogers leads the all-time series 66-21-2.
“Rogers has hard-nosed kids and Coach (Charlie) Roten runs a good program. It'll be a test and a great ballgame for our first game,” said Lancaster, whose squad's home opener at John Glover Stadium is Sept. 11 against Groesbeck.
The Rogers clash is Lancaster's first game as a head coach since 2013, when he finished five years on Bruceville-Eddy's sideline with a 9-41 record. He had been a college assistant coach for 18 seasons, including stints at Kentucky and Baylor, and served as head coach for two years at Riverside Military Academy, his alma mater, in Gainesville, Georgia.
Lancaster didn't win nearly as many games at Bruceville-Eddy as he had hoped, but he believes he made a positive impact on the Eagles' players and became a better coach in the process.
“I had never been a high school head coach in Texas, and I wasn't the best at that time at organization,” he said. “(But) in those five years I tried to change kids' lives and be that (leader) for a young man. I was very blessed to go work with Coach (Ronnie) Porter as offensive coordinator at Troy. I'm 10 times better now as a head coach.”
Experienced Academy seniors such as wide receiver/defensive back Jaylin McWilliams and offensive tackle/nose guard Wyatt Gardner have embraced Lancaster's disciplined coaching style.
“I like the way he wants everything. He doesn't care who you are. As long as you're bought in, he's going to make something happen for you,” said McWilliams, a third-year varsity standout who last season made 34 receptions for 466 yards and nine touchdowns.
“It's a lot more control. A lot more people are giving effort this year than they did last year,” said Gardner, who played for coach Mike Nichols as a freshman and for Paul Williams the last two seasons.
Having coached against Academy in recent seasons, Lancaster observed that the Bees seemed to move away from the physical, hard-edged approach they had during Nichols' eight-season tenure, which included their last winning season (7-5) and playoff victory in 2014.
“I always thought Academy had a very talented group of athletes. Through the years when Coach Nichols was here, they were very physical I thought,” Lancaster said. “When I was at Bruceville-Eddy, Academy was in the I (formation) and running a downhill offense. Then somewhere during the transition, they went more spread, more basketball on grass. And there's nothing wrong with that, but somewhere down the line, the physical part you can't ever let that escape you.
“I think (Academy) lacked a little bit of that physical part through the whole course of four quarters. There was always that breaking point. I've got to bring that toughness back and still utilize the talent we have.”
On offense, Lancaster plans to employ a multiple-I, pro-style formation to take full advantage of Academy's skilled running backs and receivers. Spearheading the attack is Cephus, a 5-foot-10, 183-pound dual-threat quarterback who started in Academy's first-round playoff loss to West in 2018. Despite missing chunks of action because of a shoulder injury, he was 78-of-115 passing (67.8 percent) for 1,020 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 463 yards (9.6 per carry) and seven TDs.
“He's very talented. We had a college scout here this morning and he was very impressed with Jerry's arm and delivery,” Lancaster said. “He's also very versatile with his legs and can run with the football, so that gives you another dimension.”
Said Cephus: “It's a new offense. I think the offense is doing great. We just have to be patient and let it develop. It's going to get there. I think it's a lot more confusing to (defenses) about where the ball's going. They have to actually see the ball to know where it's going.”
McWilliams believes Cephus is primed for an outstanding senior season.
“He can run the ball really good and he can throw the ball really good. He's way more aggressive (this year),” McWilliams said. “If he makes a mistake, he's not going to let it get to him.”
The 6-2, 175-pound McWilliams again will be a frequent target of Cephus passes, along with three other receivers: senior Kollin Mraz (who also saw time at QB last year but battled injuries), junior Blake Bundy and sophomore prospect Scout Brazeal.
“We have a really good connection and we're going to be able to hook up on a lot of passes,” Cephus said of himself and basketball teammate McWilliams, the district MVP for Academy's 30-win Region III quarterfinalist team last season. “People will have to be great on defense to stop us.”
Added Lancaster about McWilliams, whose season goals include 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns: “Jaylin's going to have to be that kid. When the ball gets in his hands, he's a tremendous runner.”
Lancaster praised the rushing ability and leadership traits of junior tailback Darion Franklin (5-11, 183), who's backed up by sophomore Lane Ward and joined in the backfield by hard-charging junior fullback Trenton Flanagan.
“Darion is a joy to be around. He brings the juice,” Lancaster said of Franklin, also a starting outside linebacker along with Cephus. “He has a great smile and is very compassionate toward his teammates.”
The 6-foot, 260-pound Gardner moved from fullback to right offensive tackle. That's not his only move. A first-team all-district linebacker last year, Gardner also has a new defensive post: nose guard.
“I kind of like it. It's making me learn new positions,” he said. “I like the trenches, getting after it and doing the dirty work.”
Experienced senior Tyler Lambert (6-3, 201) starts at left offensive tackle and is a returning first-team all-district defensive end. Flanagan mans the other end spot for new defensive coordinator Eddie Dewbre, who came with Lancaster from Troy.
Junior John Tomasek returns at tight end and inside linebacker, flanked by Ward as the other inside linebacker. Aiming to solidify Academy's defensive backfield are McWilliams, Mraz, Bundy – a second-team all-district kicker last year – and Brazeal.
The offensive line includes senior guard Daniel Cardoza and junior center Dylan Gardner, but Lancaster sees enough need for line depth to have four freshmen – Caden Berry, Tyler Burnett, Adam Caddell and Jake Jones – on the varsity roster, competing for playing time and soaking up valuable seasoning.
Although Academy isn't predicted to make the playoffs out of its highly competitive district, Wyatt Gardner sees signs that a more cohesive Bees squad might surprise the so-called experts.
“This year we're coming together more as a brotherhood,” he said. “We're a lot more close, and that's going to make us a lot better on the field."
MEET THE NEW BOSS: After six years as Troy's offensive coordinator, including a 12-2 trek to last season's Class 3A Division I Region III final, Chris Lancaster begins his first season as the Academy Bumblebees' head coach. Lancaster, 53, was head coach at Bruceville-Eddy from 2009-13 and has 18 seasons of experience as an assistant coach in college football. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)