Grangers eye turnaround season
By Kevin Eckleberry
LAGRANGE – He knows all about adversity.
Throughout his decades as a football player and coach, Dialleo Burks has had his share of ups and downs.
Obviously he enjoys the ups a lot more than the downs, but they are both part of the equation when it comes to sports.
A year ago, Burks was the head coach of a LaGrange High team that posted a 2-8 record.
It isn’t the first time Burks has been a part of a team that struggled, and he knows things can turn around.
Burks was, in fact, a member of the LaGrange College coaching staff when the program began began in 2006.
The Panthers lost their first 20 games before breaking through for nine wins and a conference title in 2008.
“I understand the struggles,” Burks said. “At the college, we were 0-20 the first two years. Then, the next year, we win a conference championship. So at any time that tide can turn. I understand that. I understand that as a player, all you can do is work hard and give your best. The outcome will be the outcome.”
Burks is familiar with the Grangers’ tradition of success.
He grew up in LaGrange, and he was a member of the 1991 team that won a state championship as well as a national title.
After excelling at Eastern Kentucky, Burks embarked on a professional football career that took him all across the world.
Burks had his most success as a member of the Arena Football League where he was a standout wide receiver for years.
Ten years ago, Burks retired from playing and turned to coaching, and in 2014 he got the opportunity to return to his alma mater and become the head coach.
Burks had served a brief stint as an assistant coach at LaGrange before becoming the head coach at Lafayette (Ala.).
After LaGrange head coach Donnie Branch stepped down after the 2013 season, Burks was offered the job, and he readily accepted.
In Burks’ first season, the Grangers went 5-6 and made it to the state playoffs.
LaGrange went 5-5 in 2015 and didn’t qualify for the state playoffs, and then came the difficult 2016 season.
The Grangers went 2-3 in non-region play, but they dropped all five of their Region 5-AAAA games.
As soon as the season ended, Burks began focusing on how to turn things around this year.
The coaching staff was re-shuffled, and for the first time most of Burks’ assistants were going to be working at the school with him.
As for the team itself, it will have a new look as well.
Thirteen seniors from the 2016 team signed letters of intent to play college football, leaving some big holes to fill.
When the Grangers open their season on Aug. 18 against the Callaway Cavaliers, they will have a vastly different look, both on the field, and on the sideline.
One of the new coaches, offensive coordinator Frank Caputo, said the players have been a joy to work with throughout what was a busy summer.
“We’ve got a lot of potential,” Caputo said following an 11-on-11 team camp. “But with potential, that’s the point Vince Dooly made, it means you haven’t done anything yet. But we’re actually starting to do a few good things, and the kids are starting to trust us. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and very pleasurable to be coaching them.”
One of the lessons Burks has learned during his years in the game is to take the victories wherever they come, no matter what’s reflected on the scoreboard.
“You won’t hear me doing a lot of crying about I don’t have this, or I don’t have that,” Burks said. “What we do is, we find joy, and we try to win in something every day. You can’t let the whole day go to waste. You try to win some part of the day. That’s all you can ask for.”
Burks’ message to the players has been to focus on the small details each day, and hopefully that will lead to greater things.
“We want to win the little battles, and then the big battle will take care of itself,” Burks said.
During the summer, Burks and the other coaches have worked hard to identify the players who are most ready to play, and find positions on the field that best suit their skill sets.
There are some positions where experience isn’t an issue.
At running back, Cornell Kendrick, Myles Johnson and Trez Delaney have all shown in previous years they can make plays.
The rest of the offense will be mostly newcomers, though.
Jakoby Smith did play extensively at quarterback last season, and he and Charles Crawford have been working at that position during the summer.
Joe Thornton is the lone returning starter on the offensive line, although a number of other players did play a lot last season.
Burks said the offensive linemen “all had great summers.”
The wide receivers are talented but untested, although participating in summer seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 camps should help them a lot.
Two of those players, Koby Patton and Jordan Ogletree, were both unable to go because of injuries last year.
“We have two guys that would have played last year that are back and are really going to help us out,” Burks said.
LaGrange will be employing the Wing T offense this season, which will play to the team’s strengths because of the depth at running back.
In addition to Kendrick, Johnson and Delaney, Dylan Norvell, Andraka Martin and Laracco Glaze will also carry the ball.
“We have some guys that can really carry the football, and we can do some different things,” Burks said. “We can pound, or we can go for speed.”
There will be a lot of new starters on defense as well, with the Grangers employing a 3-4 set-up.
There are a handful of veterans, including linebackers Dexter Fitzpatrick and Daz Williams, defensive lineman Jonathan Sutton, as well as defensive back Dexter Fitzpatrick.
“Defensively, we’ve moved to a 3-4, which isn’t going to be much different than what we did last year,” Burks said. “It’s dropping one more back. But we really stress running to the football, running with purpose. We really stress that.”
The Grangers began preseason practice last week, and this weekend they are holding a camp at the school.
In addition to practices, there is leadership training, movies, guest speakers, team meetings, a cookout, and even a talent show tonight.
The players are spending two nights at the school before the camp ends on Sunday morning.
“You want to isolate them so they can focus,” Burks said.
Burks said throughout the summer, the players have shown they have the dedication to do what it takes to succeed.
“These guys are definitely in it,” Burks said. “We’ve done a multitude of things on a different level as far as challenging them. We haven’t made it easy. We’ve put them in no-win situations, and they have proven themselves that they want to be here.”