LaGrange coach ready to get to work
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
He’s ready to get to work.
Burton Thomas was hired as LaGrange High’s defensive coordinator earlier this spring, and he has been unable to get on the field with the players because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this week, Thomas got some welcome news when the Georgia High School Association announced that sports teams in the state could resume face-to-face workouts on June 8.
“We’ve taken some Gatorades and left them at the bottom of the driveway and had (the players) come out of the house just so we could say hello, and see how they’re doing,” Thomas said. “Other than that, I haven’t gotten to see them much. I’m looking forward to getting back to it.”
Thomas is part of a staff put together by Matt Napier, LaGrange’s new head coach.
Napier was Callaway’s offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2019, and he was hired to replace Chuck Gibbs, who departed following two seasons as LaGrange’s head coach.
Thomas, meanwhile, coached linebackers at Callaway during his lone season at the school.
“He’s awesome at what he does,” Thomas said of Napier. “He’s shown that with what he’s been able to do at Callaway. He’s a really good coach. Everything that he believes in as a coach, he’s right there believing in the same things. We mesh well together, and hopefully it’s going to be a great ride. We’re ready for it.”
When Napier was looking at candidates to fill out his staff, Thomas was one of the first coaches he contacted.
“He’s a young, energetic coach, and just being around him for a year I can just tell the relationship that he had with the kids was exactly what you look for in a coach,” Napier said. “He did a great job coaching those kids, and I noticed that right off the bat. I obviously researched it, and spoke with some guys that I’d worked with before, and I could tell he’s a really smart guy, too. He had the relationship factor, and he’s a super-intelligent guy. He understands the game. He understands what it takes to be successful.
Thomas coached at Central-Carroll, his alma mater, for six seasons before making the move to Callaway for the 2019 season.
Thomas was part of a Callaway team that won a region championship and reached the semifinals of the Class AA state tournament before losing to Brooks County.
Thomas worked closely with Dusty Hubbard, who has been Callaway’s defensive coordinator since 2005 when Pete Wiggins took over the program.
Thomas is grateful for the experience he gained coaching with Hubbard, especially since the defense Callaway ran will be the same one used at LaGrange.
“Coach Hubbard is an awesome football coach. He knows defense,” Thomas said. “He knows as much football as anybody I’ve ever been around. He is an awesome defensive play-caller. Being able to learn under him was a great experience for me, especially for us implementing this defense at LaGrange. It’s the same defense LaGrange ran back in the early 2000s. It’s not new to LaGrange, but it’s new to these kids. So, with me getting to learn that from coach Hubbard, and also having coach (Thomas) Crocker on staff who taught it in the early 2000s and coached it back then, I’ve been fortunate over the last year to learn so much. I’ve learned a lot from them.”
Napier believes that having a veteran coach like Crocker on staff will be a tremendous benefit for Thomas.
“It’s a great opportunity for him to mentor a young guy, and he’s been really helpful,” Napier said of Crocker. “He’s got a lot of experience, and coach Thomas being a young guy and being early in his career, for him to have a veteran like coach Crocker to lean on his invaluable. I equate it to having a guy like my dad (Bill Napier) on staff who’s been through the battles, who’s won state championships. To have a guy like that to be able to lean on his going to be really, really helpful.”
Thomas, after graduating from Central-Carroll, played football at Lindsey Wilson College (Ky.) before transferring to the University of West Georgia where he received his bachelor’s degree.
Thomas began his coaching career at Central-Carroll, and the team had a successful run during his six seasons on staff.
Thomas was on the sidelines when Central-Carroll returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown to beat Callaway 40-34 to complete a perfect regular season in 2013.
One year later, Central-Carroll was 9-0 when it lost to Callaway 21-14 in the regular-season finale.
After one season at Callaway, Thomas is ready for a new challenge, and he’s grateful that he’ll have Napier there for support.
“He’s an offensive guy, but he’s also a football guy,” Thomas said. “He knows the sport. Anything I need help with, he’s there. He knows the defense, because he’s been running it at Callaway for so long. He can help me, but he’s also said this is your defense, so do what I know you can do with it.”
The LaGrange coaches met on Tuesday to prepare for the return of the players on June 8, and Thomas said “getting back with those kids is going to be awesome.”
“Starting to build relationships with these kids is big,” Thomas added. “I’m a huge relationship guy. I feel like if the kid loves you that he’ll do anything for you. I can’t wait to get with them. We’re going to push ‘em. We’re going to work, and it’s not going to be easy. But I’m hoping and thinking that in the end it’s going to be worth it for these guys. Maybe we can get on the train and start winning again in LaGrange. That’s what I’m really looking forward to.”