CONYERS -- From the time last season ended, Jarrett Laws has worn many hats.
While his official title continues to stand as Salem High School’s head football coach, the past eight-plus months have challenged the veteran head coach in ways he hasn’t been challenged in years.
Losing 90-plus percent of his starting 22 players on offense and defense to graduation is a big reason why.
On offense, Laws lost his starting quarterback, Donald Wilson, his starting running back, Omarious Burnam, his starting wide receivers, Tyler Smith, Makari Pruitt and Lennox Bowie and his starting offensive linemen in Brian Thomas, Neontre Asamoah, Reco McDaniel and Xavier Jennings.
He also lost several offensive reserves, such as running back Jesse Carter, wide receiver Roy Jackson and tight end Matthew Moses, all of whom played significant minutes for the Seminoles.
On defense, Laws lost his starting defensive end, DeVon Reaves, starting linebackers Brad Plunkett and DeMiko Smith, cornerback Justin Johnson, strong safety AJ McCorkle and free safety Keevan Bailey, as well as reserves Eric Hibbert, Jamie Hoagland and Quincy Scott.
The numbers in which parted ways with the Seminoles program at the conclusion of last season is staggering. So much so that Laws himself didn’t fully know what he was walking into this offseason.
“It really wasn’t real until we got around winter break last year,” Laws said. “That’s when you started to see the diversification of the program. I stood in front of a room of kids and started to struggle having to remember everyone’s name.”
We had been on a first name basis with every single kid in the program for three years, so to see all of these new faces in front of me, it dawned on me that we really are starting from scratch. This is my biggest challenge since I started Charles Drew’s high school program in 2009.”
Laws’ first three years at Salem reached a pinnacle in 2018 when he helped lead his senior-layden roster to a 7-4 record and a spot the Class AAAA playoffs for the first time in back-to-back seasons since 2006-07.
An uphill battle
While the achievement was one Laws holds close to his heart, achieving his next goal of rebuilding a program from scratch is one he has taken head on. With less than two weeks away from their first regular season game, he hopes what strides they have made are enough.
“I think this is our opportunity to do something unique in the fact that when it happens for us this year, we will have earned it,” Laws said. “Very rarely do you get an opportunity to display your coaching acumen. A lot of people think you just get by on sure talent. Where as at a place like Salem, you better know your X’s and your O’s and more than that, you better know the makeup and personality of the people you serve.”
With all of the turnover from administration to the coaches to the players, it’s a great opportunity to try and show what are you truly made up foundationally when it comes to developing kids and developing programs.”
On top of the player personnel turnover, several coaching personnel changes have been made, too. Both Mike Phiel, Salem’s assistant head coach and Jabari Wilder, Salem’s offensive line coach, have parted ways with the team.
Michael Johnson has been promoted to assistant head coach and offensive coordinator while Laws, on top of his head coaching duties, will coach the offensive line, a job title he hasn’t held in 13 years.
One thing, however, has remained the same.
“Our ultimate goal is to get one of those four spots in Region 4-AAAA and we have time to develop for that,” Laws said. “We want to be as competitive as we can be, but we’re going to make sure that by the time we get to region play, we have the right guys taking the snaps.”
Scott's turn to shine
Set to replace Wilson at quarterback is junior Daniel Scott, who served in a backup role in 2018. Wilson’s 2,606 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2018 were both school records, making the shoes Scott will soon fill that much bigger.
“Daniel has had two years to sit behind Donald and observe not just Donald’s demeanor on the field, but the prep work that he put into it off the field,” Laws said. “He’s earned the right to take over the position and right now I think he’s the most qualified on the team to do it.”
Scott got his first test at quarterback in Salem’s spring game against Newton. Scott and Seminoles failed to score any points against a talented Rams defense, but it was a good learning experience in the eyes of Laws.
“The reality didn’t set in on Daniel until he saw that Newton front dancing around,” Laws said. “I expected him to struggle against Newton and struggle he did. That was a good thing because he understands now what it takes to play the position. It gave him a tremendous amount of respect for Donald in what he was able to do with running the offense.”
Replacing top dogs
At wide receiver, Smith, Pruitt and Bowie combined for 2,175 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. In 2019, Laws has turned to senior Xavier Eutsey, who hasn’t played competitive football since his freshman year.
A standout on the Seminoles’ basketball team, Laws has been thoroughly impressed with what he has seen out of his new receiver.
“We messed around and found out that this kid could really play the position and suffice to say, had he been out here last year, he could have played in the rotation with those guys that we had,” Laws said. “We’re going to do a lot of locating him. He will move around a lot and we’ll try and use him for matchups.”
Laws also named the likes of junior Mikal Osgood as a receiver that will receive extended playing time in 2019.
With an offensive system predicated on making explosive plays, Laws said they will likely have to dial that down in 2019 and pick their spots to attack.
“This year, instead of having dynamic explosions, we’re going to have to gather it in bits and pieces just to keep defenses honest,” Laws said. “We’re not going to go into any game scared. We have a belief around here that we’re going to attack offensively and as long as I’m the coach, we’re to diversify our offense and attack people at their weak points.”
The Willis show
At running back, the Seminoles will return its only familiar face to the offensive rotation in sophomore Willis Sheppard. On 66 carries as a freshman, the 5-foot-9 back rushed for 414 yards and scored four touchdowns.
In 2019, Laws said the starting running back position belongs to Sheppard.
“All throughout Willis’s career, he’s always had to be the best player on his team,” Laws said. “That’s something that Willis is accustomed to, but we’ve asked him to do is to take a step back and find out how he can make everyone else better.”
He knows that he will have a certain amount of reps that will be critical to us winning a game, but can he get someone else to take that pressure off of him? I think that’s the big thing that helped us out in the past. It was really hard to pick your poison with us.”
Behind Sheppard, Laws expects to see juniors Laroy McGowan and Zion Hayden share the load, along with freshman Isaiah Byrd.
A bright spot
On the offensive line, the Seminoles will return two familiar faces in Zayquion Key and Bryce Johnson. Key will serve as a tackle while Johnson will line up as the team’s center. Kris Phillips, a 6-foot-4, 306-pound sophomore, is also expected to receive extended playing time.
Re-tooling the Seminoles’ defense has been an equally challenging job for Laws and company. Outside linebacker Jamel Goulbourne, the Seminoles’ Super Six representative for 2019, is the only returning starter from one season ago.
“When you’re starting from scratch and have one starter in Jamel coming back, you are having to teach the kids how to get in a stance and how deep they should be,” Laws said. “You have to teach that to Eastside’s multiple front. You have to teach to Woodward’s multiples. Being as young as they are, they have to simulate some of those things. So from day to day, we’re plugging in different kids at different positions.”
Goulbourne will make the calls on defense, a job that was held by several different players in 2018.
“At the linebacker position, it all revolves around Jamel,” Laws said. “Jamel has gotten 5-10 official offers. He’s taking the reigns of having to make all of the calls. In the past, we’ve had a guy in the back make a call, a guy in the middle make a call and a guy at the bottom make a call. He’s doing a great job at it.”
On the defensive line, the Seminoles will add Jacoby Lawson to the fold, a defensive tackle who hasn’t played since 2017. Now a senior, Laws expects Lawson to start right away.
“Jacoby has a chance to be pretty good,” Laws said. “We’re just trying to get him to play up to his potential.”
In the secondary, Laws will turn to Ahmad Hagans to replace McCorkle, who is currently competing for a starting job at Murray State.
“He’s really stepped up from a knowledge standpoint and he’s picking up that information and distributing it to everyone,” Laws said. “I think he’s going to be that main feature in carrying what we have to carry.”
When asked how Laws will measure the Seminoles’ success in 2019, Laws chalked it up to hoping to improve every week. Doing that, he said, should give them an opportunity to earn a spot in the playoffs.
“For me to call this season a success, I want to see the kids get better every week,” Laws said. “If we are getting better every week, at the end of the day, we’ll have a chance at one of those four spots. The goal is to get into the postseason.”