JACKSON TWP. The early weeks of summer may not look like football in the sense that fans are used to, but for Jackson senior linebacker Zach Harrison and his teammates, this stretch of the offseason is an important part of the schedule.
For now, team activities are severely limited and consist largely of lifting and a small amount of time on the field - with no pads or contact - all designed to help players gain a full understanding of the team’s new looks on offense and defense.
“It’s just getting it going, working as hard as you possibly can and during the offseason with those long, hot summer practices, you just have to have the mentality to get out there and keep going and pushing hard,” Harrison said.
Although there isn’t any hitting, and most of the time, players aren’t moving at full speed, the summer practice sessions are essential because they’re when the coaching staff can take the time to delve into every detail of the offensive and defensive schemes, stopping everyone if need be to hone in on a specific point.
With the defense taking on a new look this season, it’s a time of adjustment for everyone, even the veterans. According to Harrison, the new defense isn’t a total departure from last season’s look, with “a couple of tweaks” from what the Polar Bears did last season. He and his fellow seniors are working to learn the changes both for themselves and also so they can help their younger teammates comprehend the system.
“This is, for the upcoming freshmen, new stuff and even for everyone, because we’re learning new stuff for our defense and even a little on offense, so it’s trying to get a grip on it now and then two-a-days and throughout the summer, you just keep working to get better at it,” Harrison said. “You’ve just got to take leadership over them and make sure they know how things get done here … working hard and getting things right.”
Summer is also when teams try to develop the mindset with which they want to approach the season. Jackson, which finished 5-5 and narrowly missed out on a playoff berth last year in its first season under new head coach Tim Budd, believed that it didn’t have the necessary level of physicality last season to compete in the new-look Federal League.
With newcomer Green adding another solid competitor to the mix, the battle to be the top team in the seven-team league is that much more intense, and if Jackson is to battle last season’s top teams - Perry and GlenOak - and push its way past traditional rivals Canton McKinley and Lake, Harrison and his teammates are well aware that they must start developing a more physical mentality now.
“One hundred percent. They (the coaches) work our butts off just to get that mental toughness just so we have that edge to go out there and be as tough as possible,” Harrison said. “Last year, we got pushed around a bit, so this year we have to make sure we’re the most physical team in the Fed (Federal League). We just want to get out there, be physical and win games.”
At the end of a recent practice, Budd and his assistant coaches both made the point that physicality is a focal point. Assistant coach Jay Rohr challenged the defense to take no plays off, even in practice, and demanded that each player be willing to hit hard and be intense if they wanted to earn playing time.
Budd later told the entire team in a huddle that they needed to “embrace the physicality of football” if they wanted to be the sort of team they hoped to be. So, while there may not be any pads, high-speed collisions or fans in the stands, a closer look reveals that the basic building blocks of the football season are being put in place.
As Harrison, like senior football players all across Northeast Ohio, looks ahead to his final season of football, he wants to do whatever he can to ensure that it’s a successful season and that he makes the most of the time he has left to suit up in purple and gold. That quest begins in the heat of early June, with the opening kickoff of the season opener still months away.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB