Any doubt of the culture change taking place on the gridiron at Lehman High was dispelled minutes into the team’s annual Lobo Kickoff scrimmage Saturday.
During one of the first few plays, two linemen engaged in a small scuffle that went beyond the whistle.
Within seconds, coaches came in to break up the scrum. Players whooped, fans hollered and the two linemen dusted themselves off for the next play.
But for head coach Josh Kirkland, such a scene shows the intensity he envisions for a program that’s managed four wins in the past three seasons. It’s that increasing intensity, along with a focused work ethic, he hopes translates to wins for a Lobo team that aims to prove it can hang with the big boys in 25-6A in 2017.
For Kirkland, it’s impressing on his players to treat practice as if it’s a game – that everything matters.
“Everything they do out here matters. Every snap, every sprint, every up-down, everything we do matters. We beat that into them,” Kirkland said. “They come out firing on all cylinders and sometimes end up in those scuffles. That’s what brothers do; we break them up and keep playing.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Kirkland is trying to reshape the image of Lehman football. The big thing, he said, was letting not only fans, but players know they can win and it’s possible.
“They have all of the tools they need and they’ve got all of the ability,” Kirkland said.
Players quickly took note of Kirkland’s coaching style and his penchant for change. Lobo sophomore running back Diego Romero said prior to Kirkland’s hire last April, there was a lot of slacking off.
Once Kirkland came in, the dynamic changed. It started with Kirkland stressing the importance of attending summer power camps.
Lobo quarterback Daniel O’Neal said he and Romero were two of 20 people who never missed a workout over the summer.
“When he came in, we put in work and we showed out,” Romero said.
The Lobos showed much of that ability during the course of the two-hour intrasquad scrimmage.
At the center was an up-tempo Lobo offense that ran roughly 150 to 200 plays during the scrimmage.
Pacing the offense was Romero, who bowled past defenders and sped his way to at least four touchdowns in the scrimmage. Romero credited his offensive line for the success, but also cited the work he put in to reach the starting job as a sophomore.
“It’s just putting in work all day and never taking breaks,” Romero said.
Surrounding Romero is a Lobo offense that returns only a handful of starters from last season. Much of the experience extends to the wide receiving position, which includes seniors Braden Sullens and Chastin Evans.
Senior Ethan Roach is expected to be the starting quarterback, but a slight injury paved the way for backup O’Neal to have time under center Saturday.
O’Neal said the Lobos aim to change the view teams have of them this year. Helping is a coaching staff that features several former collegiate football players, including Mack Leftwich, who played at UTEP, and Chris Whaley, who played at Texas.
“They set examples for us and take us through drills they had when they were pros,” O’Neal said.
On the opposite side, Lehman’s defense, which returns only four starters from 2016, will center on its linebacking corps, which will be helped by senior Josh Weusi-Barrera. On the defensive line, junior Terry Maher-McGee and Jake Cude could make an impact this season.
But Kirkland realizes the team has plenty of youth at many positions, including defensive back.
“These kids are going to be really good. They’re young, but we’re trying to change the mindset,” Kirkland said. “We’re trying to create a winner mentality inside of them. That happens in practice and doesn’t necessarily happen in a game or overnight.”
Ensuring staff “comes with juice” and continues to motivate players is how Kirkland hopes to keep momentum going into the second week of practice.
“The more excited and the more teaching we’re doing, the more the kids are going to respond,” Kirkland said. “The main thing is we come out ready to go at every practice and every game.”