Photo by Darryl Maxie
New Riverdale coach Olten Downs guides the Raiders with a firm hand, but has the ear of his players because, as junior linebacker Troy Wyche puts it, "he's closer to our age and talks the same way we do."
By Darryl Maxie
The Riverdale Raiders aren't just listening to Olten Downs. They hear him.
So when this 27-year-old, first-time head coach tells them that they can restore school pride, that they can put the Raider brand back on the high school football map and that they can have fun doing it, he's speaking their language.
Downs isn't just talking out the side of his neck. He's seen it done at another school, firsthand. More importantly, he brought the blueprints.
A former defensive coordinator at Carver-Columbus, Downs was an assistant there when the school began its transformation under Dell McGee. The Tigers went 2-8 in 2005 (a subsequent forfeit bumped that up to 3-7) before going 12-2 and playing in the semifinals at the Georgia Dome in 2006.
Fast forward to 2011 and Downs can't help but see a parallel. The Raiders were 1-9 last year on the field, though a subsequent forfeit bumped that up to 2-8.
"At Carver, they were 2-8 and it was a place nobody wanted to go," Downs said. "They had athletes and I couldn't understand why they were 2-8. Then we went 12-2 and the rest is history. I saw the same thing here. It can happen here. I see a similar situation."
Carver went on to win a state championship in 2007, going 15-0. Downs also won a state championship as a player at Columbus' Shaw High in 2000. Credibility as a player and an assistant coach gets the Raiders' attention, too.
But mostly they can relate to the firm field leader because they know he's been where they are.
"He's bringing a lot of style and swaggerness, instead of the old traditional football, and we're having more fun," said senior receiver Dequavious Martin, who will be counted on to be a more vocal leader this season.
Said Troy Wyche, a junior linebacker: "He's closer to our age, so he talks the same way we do."
That's a marked change from what some Raiders say they experienced last year under the coaching staff headed by Nick Davis. Before Davis stepped down to take the head coaching job at Spalding, Martin said the players sensed that the heart of the the previous regime -- "the coaches' attitude toward us" -- spoke a different language than Downs is talking now.
"You started noticing it in their body language," Martin said. "It put us in a position we didn't want to be in."
Just because the Raiders can relate better to Downs doesn't mean they get away with anything. Downs consistently preaches to his players "the price of irresponsibility." On a recent cool, drizzly overcast morning, several players paid that price in installments of 25 or 50 push-ups for offenses ranging from dropping a pass to failing to carry out an assignment properly.
"The biggest thing is, we want to change the mindset," Downs said. "We want to instill character, pride and attitude, make 'em proud to wear that 'R' on their chests."
The discipline, Downs said, is key because the Raiders have talent.
"They need somebody to cultivate that talent, to teach them to be young men in all walks of life," he said.
They need somebody to cultivate their offense, too. The Raiders scored in double figures only once in 10 games last season. Except for the forfeited game, they lost every time they scored in single digits.
Enter new offensive coordinator Larry Harold, a first-year coach fresh from Southern University in Baton Rouge. After reviewing the tapes of last year's games, he decided there was one thing they sorely needed.
"Diversity," he said. "They had a very simplistic offense last year. Every time I looked, you could tell the defense knew exactly what we were going to do -- run, run, play-action pass."
Harold brings a little imagination to the Raiders.
"We've got so many athletes and we're going to put all those guys out there in different packages," Harold said. "I want defensive coordinators staying up late at night, wondering what we're going to do. They rested too easy last year."
Downs said using more players will encourage his team, and makes better use of the available talent.
"Last year and in past years, only a certain amount of kids got to play, around 20," the coach said. "We're going to try to use at least 40. You have more kids who feel like they have a chance to play. Before, they didn't feel that they had a chance, so they kind of sat back."
This year, instead of sitting back they want everybody standing up and taking notice.
"Hopefully, it'll be exciting for the guys and for the fans," Harold said.