Holmes Football at Crossroads as Season Approaches
Sitting on the worn-out bleachers of the football practice field at Holmes High School, one can quickly sense the positive vibrations emanating from the team's coaching staff.
Head coach Ben Nevels conducts practice with a steady smile on his face as he plays the role of the opposing quarterback for his defense and shouts encouragement at every chance. During a water break, a player was reminded by an assistant coach of their emphasis on encouraging one another after he grumbled to a teammate. The team has bought into a mind frame of doing the best it can, while also enjoying the experience at the same time.
“We talk with the players and coaches about being positive all the time,” Coach Nevels said.
It's a sensible approach by Nevels and his staff as the team is facing a transition brought on by a youth movement.
“We are kind of at a crossroads right now. Last year we graduated several key playmakers. So there are some spots where we are trying to figure out who is going to step up and how that's going to play out,” Nevels said. “But while we're young in some areas, we are really excited about the potential that that youth has.”
The Bulldogs went 5-6 last season, powered mostly on the legs of graduated running back, Jonathan Scruggs, who rushed for 1,493 yards and 15 touchdowns. Replacing that kind of production will be a challenge for Nevels and adds to the uncertain forecast of the upcoming season.
“We could go 10-0, we could go 5-5, we could go 0-10. I'm not really sure right now because I haven't been able to really get a read thoroughly on our guys,” Nevels said about this year. “Yesterday we came out like gangbusters, then we hit a little lull after we did some conditioning. We talked about it, we came out today, we hit it and we were up on time, so from yesterday to today I told the guys we took a step forward. If we keep taking steps like that, we will be right where we need to be in the end.”
To supplement for the loss of Scruggs and his major offensive contributions, Nevels said the coaches are adding a few new wrinkles on that side of the ball, but that they also plan to return some to the basics in order to take some of the pressure off of the offensive line.
“We're going to run through a few more different blocking schemes then we did last year. We're going to be a little bit more simplistic and hopefully a little more effective. We don't necessarily have the big, overpowering linemen so we're going to try to use some schemes that give our guys angles and allow them to double-team a guy versus having to be one-on-one and overpowering.”
On defense, the team runs the same stack formation that Nevels crafted at Holmes during his time there, but this year, he turned the playcalling over to his defensive coordinator, Brandon Debruler, with some lighthearted reluctance.
“I'm handing over the reigns of my baby to our defensive coordinator,” Nevels joked. “(Debruler) is going to do a great job, though. He's a hard worker and a football fanatic.”
Nevels, Debruler, and the other staff are not only developing positive football players, but are developing positive young men. The head coach explained how he emphasizes to his players how the skills they learn on the field can be carried throughout life independently of football.
“If you're late for practice, or you skip practice, you're going to be late for class or you're going to miss school. Miss school and you can't play. And then you take it a step further and what happens when you're late for work? So we try to make it as real life as possible and try to get them to see beyond the here and now.”
Often times, the here and now can be stressful for the student athletes at Holmes. Being the only public high-school in Covington, a wide variety of students enroll, many who come from lower-income households. When asked if there were any extra challenges working with players who may have a difficult home life, Nevels again took the positive road.
“Some people call them challenges, we call them opportunities,” he said. “While some school districts may have more money, they may run into problems that we don't have here. That silver-spoon kid that has never had to work hard for anything in his life, how are you going to get him out and get dirty and work hard? I think more than anything, it's a mentality. That mentality knows no financial boundaries.”
The mantra of Nevels and his philosophy is written on the dry erase board in his office. When he's down and out, he reads it to pick himself back up.
Be patient, but never lower your expectations.
He himself has demonstrated patience in his own career having risen in the coaching ranks after four years on defense before landing the top spot. He is a self-professed dreamer and surrounds himself with other dreamers. Now in his second year as head coach, he feels, or expects, that his program is primed for the kind of big impact he's dreamed of in what he considers a powerhouse region of the state.
“I've told everybody that will listen, Northern Kentucky is terrified of an organized, disciplined Holmes High School. We've got the organizational piece down, and now we are working on being more and more disciplined.”
The groundwork has been set for the team to grow into its full potential, through hard work and attention to detail. But the moral support of the players is also firmly in place thanks to the positive attitude and approach to the game promoted and demonstrated by Nevels and the other coaches. It's hard not to smile at what's taking place on the Holmes football field this season.
Written by Bryan Burke, RCN Staff Writer
Photo: Tom Ellis Stadium/Brian Frey