Andy Whatley, who has 15 wins in five years at the school, is the winningest coach in the 17-year history of the program. Last year’s 4-7 team is the fourth winningest team in school history and a return to the playoffs this year would mark the first time an Evangel coach has more than one playoff appearance.
That’s because Evangel doesn’t usually keep players long enough to build a foundation. This year’s team is no different, featuring just three returning starters on offense, roughly the same on defense, and little preseason work to establish any continuity because Whatley had just nine players out for football in the latter part of July. As a result, there were no seven-on-seven drills, no preseason scrimmage and little preparation for the Aug. 18 season opener with Evangel Christian of Alabaster.
“When you don’t have but nine or 10 kids two months ago, you can’t schedule these things,” Whatley said. “We didn’t do any seven-on-seven. It’s been a weird year. The revolving door, every year, me and my headmaster try to figure out how to stop that. We don’t quite have the answer. We have some ideas and implemented them a few years ago and retained some of the players since then, but it’s all about being able to get the right kid in here.
“As far as stability, the little stuff like this (building a new foundation for the home bleachers), whether seen or unseen, is what we’ve been doing for five years. That’s what they’ve done for me. Obviously, we’ve always paid a lot of attention to this (grass on the field). We’ve got 25-second (play) clocks coming in, in case we host the playoffs. All that stuff is part of the mentality that you build it. A lot of that is the master plan to fix the revolving door.”
Offensively, he’ll build a lot around his veteran players. Ethan Johnson and Kory Gaines both return at tackle and tight end Desean Powell will move to tailback alongside sophomore Xavier Williams to give the Lions some punch. Quarterback Aaron Alpert was at Evangel as a sophomore before going to Oregon last year.
“There were about 3,500 (students) in the school and I came in about a week before the first game,” he said. “I just got in there and played backup quarterback and receiver because they had a senior quarterback, but he taught me a lot about reading the safeties and the cornerbacks, so it helped me grow a lot.”
Alpert knows most of the seniors in school from his time there in 2015, so he’s not worried about the revolving door of talent.
“Me and a couple of other guys were here in the 10th grade,” he said, “so we started building the team. As I came back for my senior year, I tried to get a couple of the guys I had in the 10th grade because we had that chemistry and camaraderie. Now we really know how to work together because we’ve been friends for four or five years and know each other’s strengths and each other’s weaknesses, so we can help each other build.”
Defensively, Johnson, Gaines and Powell could give the Lions a solid defensive front, but Evangel is unproven at linebacker with Jaden Gardener and Carlos Hinson and in the secondary where Alpert will have to play.
“The safeties and the cornerbacks have to get a better feel for reading the quarterback’s eyes, knowing where he’s going,” Alpert said, “because we have a lot of first-year players (in the secondary).”
Whatley hopes his offense can be effective enough to keep the Lions’ defense from being exploited.
“That’s my concern,” he said. “I know the quarterback knows my system. We’re moving the ball this year a lot better than last year. But on defense, everybody is unproven.”
The revolving door not only includes his players but his coaching staff as well, where two of his three coaches left for other jobs, leading to new defensive coordinator Ed Dean, who was formerly at Southside-Selma, and offensive line coach Jonathan Powers joining returning coach Danny Madison.
Despite the continual rebuilding process, Evangel reached the playoffs last year and came agonizingly close to winning AA Region 1 in 2016. A fourth-quarter collapse in a pair of October games saw Cornerstone edge the Lions 27-21 to win the region title and Lakeside pull out a 22-19 win to take second place and force the Lions to travel to Escambia Academy for a first-round playoff game.
Whatley and his returning players can’t help but remember the rally on the far end of their home field coming up just short against Lakeside. Many of the new players, on the other hand, aren’t even sure of which region Evangel plays.
“We got to the playoffs last year, now their big thing is host it,” Whatley said. “Four more yards. We’ve been using (that motto) all summer. But some of the kids have never heard of the schools we’re playing.”
That’s an annual problem at Evangel Christian. Alpert and his fellow seniors hope they can reverse the trend of players leaving the school by making a return to the playoffs in 2017.
“I feel like we can take over the region,” he said. “I know the guys I’m playing with and I know my skill and their skill and feel like if we can come together, not give up the entire game and play hard every play we can win every single region game we have.”
2 Xavier Williams
3 Jalen Miles
4 Sam Allen
5 Aaron Lee
6 Dre Martin
7 Desean Powell
8 Jaylen Shine
10 Aaron Alpert
11 Trevor Whatley
22 Derek Kitchens
23 Daryl Stewart
28 Jaden Gardener
54 Kam Priest
57 Carlos Hinson
62 Jamal Salter
64 EJ Johnson
74 Kory Gaines
77 Logan Temple