When new Craig County High School football coach Mark Harrison told his friends he was taking the job, they had one message for him. You can’t win at Craig County.
Well, Mark doesn’t believe them. He’s optimistic that, with some hard work and a lot of sweat, there’s no reason why the Rockets can’t have a successful program year after year.
“We have a lot of tough boys here in Craig County,” he said. “I want people to see what we have when they come over that mountain, that we play hard-hitting football.”
Before coming here Mark had seen the Rockets from the other side of the field. He was an assistant at Auburn two years ago, when the Eagles beat the Rockets 47-0, and he was at Eastern Montgomery last year when the Mustangs beat Craig, 33-0. What could he have seen to make him believe there was a future here?
“I’ll tell you what, I thought they had some tough kids,” he said. “They were raw, but I saw toughness. I thought if someone showed them the right steps to take, it could be a different story.”
Mark knew what he was getting into. The Rockets haven’t won more than two games in a season since 2012 and in the past four years they’re 5-35. One of those wins was against some school named “Grace something or other.”
Last year the Rockets were winless. They scored 20 points all season while giving up 466. Still, that didn’t deter Harrison in the least.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” he said. “And it’s going to take some time. We’ve started a lifting program and the kids are buying in. I’m in this for the long haul. As long as I’m treated well, I’m planning on staying here.”
Mark had heard the rumors about the county considering dropping high school football. When he took over he was greeted by 14 boys who said they wanted to play. Instead of whining he proceeded to try and make those 14 boys the strongest and fastest they could be in his TF40 strength and conditioning program.
Harrison holds numerous certifications, including USA Weightlifting Level 1 Sports Performance, USA Boxing Level 2, Crossfit Level 1 trainer and he’s a member of the National Strength & Conditioning Association. Athletes training at the TF40 benefit from Harrison’s knowledge, commitment and relationships with some of the best known coaches and athletes from the nation’s best colleges and NFL teams.
During the summer, Mark held lifting sessions with any Craig boy who was willing to work. He recognized a Craig County football “Lifter of the Month” and made it fun for the boys, and they bought in. When 14 showed up for two-a-days, he wasn’t discouraged. Not in the least.
“I was expecting it,” he said. “I figured we’d have low numbers.”
But then the word got out that this new coaching staff was committed to making this team the best it could be. Soon more boys signed up, and by the time the Rockets had their first scrimmage last Saturday at the Riverheads Jamboree the roster was up to 21, half again the original number.
“It was just word of mouth,” said Harrison. “The kids were catching wind and they were excited about what we’re doing.”
The numbers at the middle school increased from 13 to 18, and more boys could still join up. Mark is willing to work with anyone who wants to commit to the team, and he’s been happy with the attitudes thus far.
“I’ve found these kids to be very hard workers,” he said. “I’m having a good time just being around them. I think we can eventually have a team of about 30 players on the varsity. That’s my goal.”
Mark assembled a staff of people he trusts to coach football the right way. He retained Jesse Bradford from last year’s staff and added Rick Fornoy, Jerry Caldwell and David Kibler. Fornoy will also coach the eighth grade team with help from Dean Abbott.
“We’re not going to do a lot of fancy stuff right away,” said Harrison. “We have a young line so we’re going to keep it simple. We’re not going to do a lot of pulling. We’ll go straight ahead with a little misdirection and try to get situations where we have two blocking one, or three blocking two. Right now it’s important to keep it simple. We’ll start doing more when we’re ready.”
If you’re going to build a program it’s always good to start with a young, talented quarterback, and Craig has one. Dakota Henderson is just a sophomore but he started for the Rockets last year.
“He’s tough and he’s smart,” said Harrison. “He can run and he can throw.”
Junior Dalton McPherson will also play some quarterback. He’ll give the Rockets a little different look.
“He’s a little more finesse,” said Harrison. “They’re both going to play.”
Runningbacks will come from a group that includes senior Jacob Bradford, junior Ben Deplazes and sophomore Kyle Sloss. They have different styles.
“Kyle will get us those tough four yards every time,” said Harrison. “Ben has the wheels, he’s probably the fastest on the team, and Jacob is more finesse.”
Others looking for time include junior Cameron Fisher, senior Matt Huffman and freshman Dalton Henderson.
Craig will run a double tight end most of the time and Huffman and sophomore John Bunnell are in those spots. Harrison has high hopes for junior Hunter Wright at wide receiver. “He has good hands and runs good routes,” said the Craig coach.
Deplazes and Bunnell could also be wide outs, and Harrison isn’t ruling out running a spread formation at times with Fisher and Dalton Henderson getting into the mix.
“We’ll have three formations, what we call the ‘Fat’ formation, a full house and a spread,” he said. “My coaching philosophy is, if something isn’t working you better have something else in your back pocket.”
Every good coach knows a team can only go as far as the offensive line can take them, and Craig’s line is very young.
“We’re big, but we’re inexperienced,” said Harrison. “They’re learning technique, and once they do they’ll be tough.”
Sophomore Chase Huffman returns after starting at center last year. He’ll play either center or right tackle, as he has the potential to be a really good one.
Two boys new to the program, twins Justin and Dustin Hurley, will also start in the line. They’re both sophomores as well.
“They hadn’t played before but I’ve been very impressed with their work ethic,” said Harrison. “They never miss a day in the weight room.”
Other linemen are senior Clay Spence, sophomore Jaylen Wolfe and promising freshman Channing Smith as Harrison is working with one senior four sophomores and a freshman on a very young line.
Mark calls his defense the “Riverboat Defense,” which is basically a “four stack,” with four down linemen and four linebackers. Huffman and junior Austin Brookman will be in the middle on the line with the two Hurleys bookending the ends.
Craig is strong at linebacker with Sloss and Bradford in the middle and McPherson and Dakota Henderson on the corners. Gavin Owens is the backup.
Fisher and Dalton Henderson are the cornerbacks with Deplazes at free safety. Bunnell will back them up.
Bunnell will be the placekicker while Wright will handle the punting duties. Deplazes gives Craig a speedy return man.
Craig will open with Bland County, on the road, this Friday. The Bears beat Craig last year, 32-8, and the Rockets didn’t score again until October.
The Rockets have dropped Radford, James River and Roanoke Catholic from the schedule. Craig has added Nelson County, Montcalm of West Virginia and Twin Valley, a Group 1A school from Pilgrims Knob, VA.
“Every game will be tough for us,” said Harrison. “But we’ll fight every game. That’s all I’m asking right now.”