Autauga Academy faces tough out-of-state foe
By Tim Gayle
Be careful what you wish for.
Autauga Academy coach Bobby Carr went shopping for a game. After replacing a team on his 2017 schedule by moving a game, he had an open date for this weekend and noticed Port St. Joe High was looking for a game.
“I called them, like a dummy,” Carr said. “But I’m really looking forward to it. I think we’ve got a really good team as well. You can tell they have a lot of pride in their program and they’ve had a lot of success over the years.”
Port St. Joe coach John Palmer already had 4A Marianna, 4A Rutherford and 5A Bay on his schedule and wasn’t sure he wanted to travel to Miami to play 7A schools so he figured a game with AISA defending AA state champion Autauga was a nice fit.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Palmer said. “You want to be that team that’s winning but it comes with a price. It’s hard to find a game. That’s how this game came about. We were advertising and Autauga was looking for a game. There were some 7A teams out of Miami that wanted to play us, but it didn’t fit, taking our team on the road to Miami. It should be a good matchup. I think it’ll be a great game.”
Autauga (5-0) is riding an 18-game winning streak and hasn’t been challenged this season, beating Valwood School 38-29 in the SECIS Kickoff Classic, then defeating Tuscaloosa Academy 38-19, Bessemer Academy 23-7, Pickens Academy 41-8 and Pike Liberal Arts 40-26. A sixth game, against Graceville (Fla.), was canceled because of Hurricane Irma and could have provided a better gauge for the Generals.
“Coach Carr’s son (Tripp) really does a good job driving that offense,” Palmer said. “They’re kind of a three-headed monster with No. 2 (Carr), No. 20 (tailback Jordan Epkins) and No. 4 (receiver Kendrick Rogers). And their defense is really athletic, they’re big, they run well and they’re extremely well coached. They don’t get out of position defensively and that really makes things difficult offensively because they’re not going to beat themselves.”
Port St. Joe (4-0) is a 1A team that features an enrollment of approximately 350 students, which is three times the size of Autauga. The Tiger Sharks defeated Marianna 7-6 in overtime, a school that is roughly the same in enrollment as Stanhope Elmore. They coasted past Bay High 35-20, a school whose enrollment nearly mirrors 7A Spain Park and is larger than Robert E. Lee High. Last week, Port St. Joe defeated Rutherford 27-10, a school whose enrollment is most closely matched in this state by 7A Hewitt-Trussville.
A small 1A school located roughly midway between Panama City and Apalachicola would be even better with running back Trey Sanders, but the former Tiger Shark, who committed to play football at Alabama in 2019, is now enrolled at IMG Academy.
“We’ve had a strong history here, a really good support group,” Palmer said. “For a lot of the kids, their parents played here and they’ve stayed here. The gene pool is rich. We’re very fortunate. We do have some good athletes.”
Quarterback Josh Butts has completed 16 of 28 passes for 390 yards and five touchdowns with one interception, while rushing for 305 yards and four touchdowns on 43 carries.
“He’s had several big games for us,” Palmer said. “Kind of a gym rat type of kid. His daddy played quarterback on the 1984 state championship team. It’s a family town. Kids grew up wanting to emulate what the saw growing up.”
Two large juniors, Kendre Gant and Cameron Harmon, line up at receiver and have 182 and 164 yards, respectively.
“I don’t know exactly how many guys they have with Division I-A offers, but it looks like quite a few,” Carr said. “They’re not your everyday 1A school, that’s for sure. (Butts runs) some power read and he’s got a 6-3 wideout with offers from FIU and Southern Miss and another wideout with (college) offers and he throws it up to those two. Then, he’s got a 6-foot-2, 282-pound fullback (Alvin Dempsey) who also plays defensive tackle.
“I think we’ve got a good plan, we just have to play really sound football on both sides of the ball, that’s for sure. I thought we had three stud-looking linebackers and their guys look as big or bigger than ours.”
Autauga will counter with Tripp Carr, who has completed 66 of 91 passes for 781 yards and seven touchdowns while rushing for 334 yards and five touchdowns. Tailback Jordan Epkins has 603 yards rushing and Kendrick Rogers has 30 rushing yards, 373 receiving yards and 77 yards on kickoff returns.
But none of those statistics were compiled against a team as talented as Port St. Joe, something Carr is trying to stress to his team this week. He had similar talent several years ago at Edgewood Academy, but those teams won with good team chemistry, Carr noted.
“You’ve got to have talent to be successful, but those kids genuinely cared about each other,” he said. “That’s the thing I’m trying to instill in these guys. That’s what is missing. I hope (a sluggish win over Pike Liberal last week) woke us up and made our guys realize that at the end of the day, we all need each other.
“But I enjoy games like this. Whether we win or lose, it’s not the state championship. And I want our kids to be challenged.”