Young Bulldogs are buying into model of cohesiveness
A year and a half ago, the state of New Albany football was uncertain. Fresh off a 1-9 record, head coach Charlie Fields, a Bulldog lifer, stepped down for personal reasons and the team wasn’t slated to return a single starter at their respective position. The Bulldogs needed a new identity.
Enter Sean Coultis. A nine-year defensive coordinator at Bolingbrook in Illinois, Coultis was hired in March of 2015 after he helped guide the Chicago-area program to a 72-19 record and its first state title.
Coultis, an Indiana University grad, was aware of New Albany’s potential, but he knew the position would prove to be a challenge. His vision was to create a foundation of success made possible by love, strong character, a sense of togetherness and an understanding of what it takes to win.
Fast-forward to today, and the culture change within the program is evident.
“(The players) love their teammates. They work hard. I think they honestly buy in and do things the right way,” Coultis said. “I’m not only proud of them — I’m never worried, in the classroom or the community, that they’ll get in trouble. They’re just good kids, and I think they’ll do well. Not only on the football field, but in the classroom and in life.”
That foundation is showing on the field, too. Despite limited offseason work with the then-rookie head coach, the Bulldogs posted a 4-6 record and positioned themselves to go 8-2, according to Coultis.
New Albany jumped out to a 21-0 lead against visiting Jennings County in Week 3, but a game-winning drive in the final minute earned the Panthers a 43-36 win. In Week 8, the Bulldogs held an 18-6 second-quarter lead at Seymour only to fall 42-26.
GALLERY: New Albany football practice
In Coultis’ first meeting with rival Jeffersonville, the score was knotted at 12 in the third quarter before touchdowns of 79 and 80 yards sealed it for the Red Devils. And although New Albany controlled the majority of the second matchup, it finished on the wrong end of another game-winning drive, this time in the sectional opener.
“I was proud we won more games and did it with a young team with almost nobody coming back, but with that being said, just like (the players) have high expectations,” Coultis said, “I’m greedy, and I want to win every game that we can possibly win.”
With a full offseason now under his belt, Coultis says he’s much more comfortable in his second season with the Bulldogs. He’ll have a new offensive coordinator this year in Steve Cooley, a 23-year head coach who most recently spent six seasons at Clarksville.
The hire allows Coultis, a longtime defensive coordinator and a linebacker himself in high school, to shift back to coaching the defense after calling plays on offense last season. He said the Bulldogs will run a 4-3, his bread and butter, as opposed to a 3-5.
Anchoring the team’s youthful defense will be lone senior starters Jaylin Ray and Justin Ricketts, a defensive back and defensive end, respectively, along with junior defensive end Koby Anderson, who started as a sophomore last season. Sophomores Koran Givens and Bryce Mumphrey also started last season as underclassmen at linebacker and nose guard, respectively.
“I just think (the young players) need to get in there and make some mistakes and learn from them, just get some experience,” Coultis said. “The game will slow down for them each week.”
The Bulldogs return a strong offensive core, spearheaded by 6-foot-2, 300-pound senior lineman Ezrra Smith, a first-team all-conference and all-area selection a season ago. Junior running back Darquan Richardson also returns after rushing for 961 yards and nine touchdowns in just eight games.
Senior receiver Davin Alexander and sophomore quarterback Dylan Clark are some other key skill-position returners. Alexander was the team’s leading receiver last season, averaging over 40 yards per catch, and Clark started the last two games at QB, throwing for 214 yards and two touchdowns.
The departure of slot back Rondale Moore should pave way for a larger workload for Richardson in 2016, a role he’s eagerly prepared for in the offseason.
“(I’m) just working hard and trying to be a leader for the team,” Richardson said. “Making sure everyone comes together as a group and is productive as a whole.”
That cohesiveness, evidenced by the players who’ve bought in, wouldn’t be possible without Coultis’ hiring and the culture change that came with it. Whether it’s Richardson finding the endzone on offense or Anderson getting a sack on defense, any success is celebrated as a team.
That’s the Bulldogs’ identity.
“Everything we do,” Coultis said, “we do together.”
New Albany at a glance
Conference: Hoosier Hills, Class 6A
Coach: Sean Coultis – Second year
2015 record: 4-6 – lost in sectional opener vs. Jeffersonville
Key returners: Sr. Ezrra Smith (OL), Jr. Darquan Richardson (RB), Soph. Dylan Clark (QB), Jr. Koby Anderson (DE), Sr. Davin Alexander (WR), Sr. Jaylin Ray (CB), Sr. Justin Ricketts (LB)
Season opener: @ Providence, Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m.