By Chris McCarthy
Although he temporarily stepped down as Coosa Christian head football coach during the 2016 season, Nevandra Wood liked what we saw from afar when the Conquerors broke an 18-game winless steak and notched their first postseason berth in seven years under interim head coach Chris Sanders.
“The season started out rocky,” said Woods, a Gadsden native and 2004 Litchfield High graduate. “I think it took the wind out of the kids’ sails when I told them I was leaving for a year, but I think our coaches did a great job of assuring the kids they weren’t going to miss a beat.”
The Conquerors had four head coaches in four years before Woods’ arrival on campus, and Woods said that he made a commitment to stay long-term and provide stability. Woods was allowed to oversee the football program last season but could not give instructions on the field.
“I think it started to click for them after the Appalachian game (in Week 2), and I was very pleased with the outcome of the season,” said Woods. “I was communicating with my coaches about what we needed to do to keep going in the right direction, and the kids responded. I think the biggest thing was that they saw that all of the coaches, including me, were coming back for this year. I think that did a lot for the stability of the program.”
Woods played running back for Danny Kimble at Litchfield and noted that Kimble as similar to University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban in terms of discipline and accountability.
“Coach Kimble was old school and he demanded a lot out of us,” said Woods. “He cared about us but there wasn’t a lot of laughing and game-playing and he got straight to the point. We knew we had to take every practice and every game seriously. We had a lot of talent back then, and Coach Kimble knew how to get guys in position to be successful.”
The Eagles went to state semifinals during Woods’ freshman and junior years and the quarterfinals his sophomore and senior seasons. Woods then played linebacker in college at Alabama A&M in Huntsville before transferring to Jacksonville State.
Woods was an assistant coach for several years at Southside High and Gadsden Middle before coming to Coosa.
As is the case with most small Class 1A private schools, Coosa’s roster size goes up or down depending upon enrollment. This season, the Conquerors are on the upswing with 30 players on the roster as compared to 14 last season.
“I’m very excited about the numbers,” said Woods. “Every day this summer, I can honesty said that I’ve been happy about our situation with the roster.”
Coosa has a decent amount of returning talent, including quarterback/defensive end Caiden Lipscomb. As a sophomore in 2016, he passed for 437 yards and had 48 tackles.
“Caiden’s a blue-collar kid who really gritty,” said Woods. “He not a big vocal leader but he leads by his actions. Caden brings a humble attitude to the table and is his own worst critic. He’ll be a big factor in how we do on both sides of the ball this season.”
Joining Lipscomb in the backfield is Dartavious Britton, who rushed for 759 yards and four touchdowns and caught 12 passes last year as a freshman. Britton will switch to cornerback on defense.
“Dartavious has put on a little size and has thickened up a little bit,” said Woods. “But he still has his speed and the ability to make defenders miss. We’re going to try to get him the ball in open space as much as possible. He’s still a young guy, but Dartavious is going to have to put the team on his back a lot for us this year.”
Brody Sanders, a senior transfer from Etowah High, will periodically spell Britton in the backfield while playing middle linebacker on defense.
Another offensive weapon is senior tight end/receiver Jackson Justus.
“Jackson’s a big target and we’re going to do a lot with him,” said Woods. “We can use him in formation, spread him out or use him as the up back for blocking.”
Justus will also start at defensive end and punter.
The unit that Woods views as the key to the season is the offensive line, where almost every starter returns in senior Emory Kitchens and juniors Chase Burger, Noah Davidson and Brady Long. Woods said that those players would stay on the field for defense.
Jackson had 47 tackles last season, followed by Burger with 59, Britton with 40 and Kitchens with 39.
Jake McDowell and Ashton Clemmons will start at linebacker. Joining Britton in the secondary will be Carsten Lipscomb, junior Karter Roberts and Evan Delp, a 6’3 freshman who was a standout on the Conquerors’ basketball team last year.
Roberts is a foreign exchange student from the Bahamas.
Although Woods puts a premium on conditioning given that most of his roster will play both ways, he’s made sure that his players don’t view that part of practice as punishment.
“If I have to discipline someone, it’s going to be something else that running or sprinting. I want them to embrace the conditioning drills and know that it’s to get them better and to be able to play all four quarters. I also like to move [the conditioning drills] around certain times at practice so it’s not predictable.”
Woods does not see the Conquerors fighting for one of the lower postseason seeds in Class 1A, Region 6, where Cedar Bluff, Gaylesville, Spring Garden, Valley Head and Woodville reside.
“Quite honestly, I feel that we have a good chance to compete for the number one spot with the guys that we have. We’ll be playing both Cedar Bluff and Spring Garden at home this year, so I like our chances.”
Jacksonville Christian Academy discontinued its football program and Coosa will play at Donoho in place of that game.
Assistant coaches are Chris Sanders, David Romano, Josh Wolford, Mikey Green and Josh Norton.
Woods said that in his role as the school’s athletic director, he sees the recent success of the boys basketball and baseball teams rub off on the football squad.
“We’re trying to build a traditional winning atmosphere here in every sport,” he said. “While they are year, we’re trying to convince our kids to do everything they can to make a positive impact on Coosa Christian. We want to build an atmosphere where we want to take pride in everything we do, from the classroom to the gym and the athletic fields in all of our sports. I think that we’re headed in the right direction to accomplishment that goal of a championship mentality.”
Woods also takes his responsibility as a Christian mentor very seriously.
“Every coach wants to win, including me, but my main objective is to teach these kids life lessons using the platform of football. We as a coaching staff have a Bible study every week so we can stay grounded and be the good models we need to be for our kids. God holds us responsible for the time we spend with these kids, and we want to mold them into good Christian young men. That’s the real reward we get when we see them years later and see that they’ve become good husbands and fathers.