GADSDEN CITY SENIORS. Pictured, first row, from left: Kenneth Mabry, Arlando Jennings, Sam Day, Martavious Baker, Eric Heard, Trey Blount. Second row, from left: Korey Isom, Khalil Marshall, Quinton Densmore, Jovan Sumpter, Jackson Veasy, Jalen Robinson, Jakari Embry. Third row, from left: Allen Merrick, Phillip Hunter, Paden New, Daniel Sparks, DeRickey Wright, Levi Adams. (Courtesy of Bill Miller Photography)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
After 13 years and four head football coaches, Gadsden City hired its first local product to steer the Good Ship Titan into winning waters.
1992 Emma Sansom High graduate Ali Smith, who was a three-year all-area cornerback for legendary Rebel football coach Buster Gross, was named interim coach in January and had that tag removed in early July. Smith is also the school’s track and field coach
Smith, who has coached in the Gadsden City School System for 18 years, including the past 13 at Gadsden City, named the team’s offseason and summer workouts “Titan Pride.”
“A lot of it is about making sacrifices, like coming in for 6 a.m. workouts. We don’t have an easy deal out of all 10 weeks, so hopefully we’re building our kids up mentally and physically to get them ready. I’ve told our kids from day one that we’re working on our bodies to last through the month of November.”
Over the past two seasons, GCHS went 6-14 with no playoff appearances. The 2018 Titans lost their first six games, including four at home.
“Getting off to a good start this year is very important for us moving forward. Our philosophy has always been to win that first game and build off the momentum. We’re going to play smash-mouth, hard-nose football. We may not sling it all over the yard, but we will find ways to get our skill (position) guys the ball. We want to establish the run but we also want to stretch the field and challenge people.”
Back for his second full season under center is junior DeMarcus Macon, who last season threw for 907 yards and six touchdowns. Smith added that junior Jayden Lawson could see some time in a backup role.
“DeMarcus is the guy we’re going to look to and get the job done,” said Smith. “I expect he’ll have a little more maturity and a better understanding of the game. As long as he’s working his butt off, the other kids will follow him.”
The remainder of the offensive skill positions, however, will be inexperienced, as the team’s top rusher and top two receivers graduated.
Smith pointed to seniors Ja-len Robinson, Phillip Hunter and Sam Day and juniors J.C. Woods and Jayden Lawson as solid components to the receiving unit.
After several years of a designated starting halfback, Smith envisions a running back-by-committee this season.
“That position is wide-open right now but we feel good with what we have. Arlando Jennings is a senior who has taken a lot of the first-team reps, and there’s some good competition behind him with (junior) Orin Brock and (sophomores) C.J. Miller and D’Javi By-ers. Hopefully one of those guys will separate himself from that group and take over that deal.”
Although he’ll start at safety, senior DeRickey Wright – a transfer from Eto-wah who recently committed to Ole Miss – is a multi-purpose threat who can line up at every skill position on offense while contributing on special teams. Wright last season finished with 46 tackles and six interceptions for the Blue Devils.
“We’ll give DeRickey a little breather from time to time, but he won’t leave the field much,” said Smith. “We’ll ask him to do some things that will help him as a player and help us as a team. He’s a tremendous athlete, and we’re glad to have him on our team. I love his attitude, and he’s a great kid. I’m hoping that he rubs off on some of the other kids.”
Three-fifths of the offensive line returns in senior Davis Liggan and juniors Tristan Scripps and Ivyon Westbrooks. Smith also sees senior Paden New as a major contributor in the trenches.
Wright will be joined in the secondary by ball hawking cornerback Quinton Densmore, who as a junior last year had 24 tackles and four interceptions. Senior Martavious Baker will man the other corner position.
“We’re still trying to get the defensive backfield solidified, and it might not come to fruition until we get through fall camp,” said Smith.
A pair of veterans return at linebacker in senior Allen Merrick (63 tackles in 2018) and junior Janari Boston (61).
“Both kids are solid players who can get better, and they understand that,” said Smith. “We think we have a third guy that can run with them in (junior) Rashad Johnson, and juniors Calvin Wilson and Ja’Monte Lee should be helpful in that area.”
Vying for playing time up front is senior Levi Adams, who switched from the offensive line, along with juniors Terrence Peeples and Damon Ellington and senior Jovan Sumpter.
Senior Daniel Sparks and junior Caleb Harris will handle the kicking duties.
“We need special teams to help us win,” said Smith. “Special teams have won us games and have cost us games, so our kids are well aware of how important that area is for us. At the end of the day, we’d better not have a hiccup on special teams.”
Gadsden City once again will share Class 7A Region 4 with Austin, Bob Jones, Florence, Grissom, Huntsville, James Clemens and Sparkman.
“I really think that it’s anyone’s region this year,” said Smith. “Our players better be ready to fight week in and out, and we need our coaches to be mentally sharp. I can’t predict our success on the field this season, but one thing we will do is give folks a good, hard-nosed product. Our kids know that if they don’t play hard, they’ll be on the sideline next to me. When people leave the stadium, I want folks to say that at least we played hard.”
Smith played for two Eto-wah County Sports Hall of Fame coaches in high school – Buster Gross in football and George Baker in basketball. He noted that both men were no-nonsense disciplinarians who expected nothing less than 100 percent in terms of effort and accountability.
“Coach Baker’s rule was to do what you’re supposed to do and be were you’re su-pposed to be,” said Smith. “If you do those two things, you’ll be fine. If you don’t, you’re going to pay the price, and our kids know that. If the best guy on the team isn’t here, then he’s no good to us.”