Photo by Gabriel Stovall / Mount Zion rising senior quarterback Montel Buchanan surveys his surroundings as he prepares to take a snap from under center at a recent practice. New coach Ervin Starr says Buchanan is maturing as a leader for the Bulldogs.
Perhaps the biggest supporter of new Mount Zion football coach Ervin Starr is one of the Bulldogs’ old head coaches.
Put Jarred Laws — the man now at the helm of the Drew football program — at the top of the list of people who believe in Starr’s ability to bring Mount Zion back to its winning ways.
ROAD TO KICKOFF
The Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald is counting down the days until our high school football special section comes out on August 24 by taking a look at all 22 area high school football teams.
“I’ll always have an affinity with Mount Zion,” said Laws, who coached at the school from 2007-08. “It’s the biggest family atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of, short of Drew. If someone had to take over that program, I’d want it to be coach Starr.”
Starr spent four years as head coach at Rex Mill Middle School, which is a feeder program for Mount Zion.
Despite a 3-7 campaign last season, which featured lopsided, shutout losses to Jonesboro and state runner-up Lovejoy, the Bulldogs’ cupboard of football talent isn’t completely bare. Mount Zion is just three years removed from consecutive eight-win seasons and playoff appearances (2008-09).
And 2010 would have likely been another winning season for the Bulldogs if not for having to forfeit five of its games due to having an ineligible player on its roster.
This year’s team returns seven starters on offense and six on defense, including three-year starting quarterback Montel Buchanan and senior tailback Deon Dawson to power Starr’s spread attack.
“I’m expecting a lot from those two guys this season,” Starr said.
Dawson is one whom Starr believes will turn many heads before the season is done. The rising senior amassed 1,153 total yards (784 rushing, 369 receiving), and 10 touchdowns . But Starr, who takes pride in being able to run the ball efficiently and often, believes Dawson is poised for a breakout year.
“He’s just now getting to the point where he’s realizing how good he really is,” Starr said. “I think he is going to be seen as one of the better backs in the metro this season. I think he’ll have a season where at the end, people are going to look and say, ‘Wow, where’s this kid been?’”
In the trenches, the Bulldogs are depending on rising junior Demonte Jefferson at guard and rising senior Jeril Lymon at center to anchor an offensive line that looks to create room for Dawson to run.
But Mount Zion’s strength may be its defense — particularly in the secondary where Emmanuel Parks, Fred Rogers, Chris Hutley, Saint Crowley and Buchanan will make up one of the Southern Crescent’s most experienced defensive backfields.
“Our leadership back there is great,” said defensive backs coach Tony Mitchell, a former Bulldogs defensive back standout. “We ought to lead the state in interceptions this year.”
Such confidence is showing up everywhere from the coaching staff down to the last player on the depth chart.
Hutley says it all begins with his new coach’s emphasis on discipline and attitude.
“[Starr] has just brought a lot of commitment, a lot of attitude a lot of stressing discipline to us,” said Hutley, one of the team’s captain. “Everybody at practice, in the weight room, we’re all just excited. We’re setting a new foundation here.”
And according to Laws, he’s known his coaching friend long enough to where he wouldn’t be surprised to see Starr lead a rapid rebuilding process.
“He’s an absolute disciplinarian,” Laws said. “He organizes kids at the highest level. One thing that impressed me about coach Starr when he was at Rex Mill and I was at Mount Zion is you could see a Starr kid when he came in. He had his characteristics. Walks in, shakes hands, looks you in the eye. Quick to say yes sir and no sir. That’s an Ervin Starr kid.”
Starr’s team will get tested early as the Bulldogs square off against county rival Jonesboro in their first game of the season. Although there are only four seniors on this year’s team, Starr is not ready to make this a trial run.
“Nobody wants to hear the new coach excuse,” he said. “We’re not going to use that excuse here. The new coach isn’t the one out here sweating and working hard on this field. That’s the players. When they believe they can win, I think this will take off pretty quickly.”