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Column: Had the opportunity to catch up with one of my favorite coaches

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Pro Roof GA

I’m not going to lie.

Jeff Herron is one of my favorite high school football coaches.

And maybe, I’m one of his favorite reporters. I don’t know.

Kevin Price – Jeff Herron talk to his T.L. Hanna football team after practice Monday at Epworth By the Sea on St. Simons Island.

But I did wake up Monday morning to a surprise text message. It was from Herron letting me know he was at Epworth By The Sea on St. Simons Island for a mini-camp with his team from T.L. Hanna High School.

His Yellow Jackets are off this week as the prep season in South Carolina opens, so with some extra practice time and no school until next week, Herron decided he’d renew a summertime tradition and bring his team down this way.

Herron used to always bring his Camden County teams to St. Simons Island for camp during preseason practice in August. He continued the tradition when he went to Prince Avenue Christian in Athens and also brought his 2016 Grayson team here for practice.

That was the last time I saw Herron in person, and I remember standing on the practice field with him that day and having him point out all those major-college prospects that had transferred to Grayson prior to his arrival.

I also remember him telling me about the talent in the sophomore class. Those players are now seniors, and the Rams are the No. 1 ranked team in Georgia’s largest classification and are highly-regarded in the national polls because of that group.

I also distinctly remember Herron telling me discipline, as in lack of it, would be a major hurdle the Rams would have to overcome that year.

Well, I don’t know if they really ever did, but what they did do was win the state championship they were predicted to win before the season kicked off.

Obviously, Herron was a good enough coach not to screw that up.

But the Rams were just not a good fit for Herron.

Let’s just say that Herron believes in the big team, little me saying that University of Georgia and Georgia Southern coaching legend Erk Russell came up with back in the day.

At Grayson, I guess it wasn’t that way, and in simple terms, that played a large part in Herron leaving the Gwinnett County power after just that one championship season.

The administrative folks at T.L. Hanna had ties to Georgia, knew their high school football obviously, and wanted to build something better with their Yellow Jackets.

So when they had an opening for a head coach, they took a chance, called Herron, and the rest is history as the saying goes.

Hanna, located in Anderson, S.C., finished 5-6 in 2016 and had only one winning season in the previous six years.

They wanted a winner, and Herron is cleary that. The proof is definitely in the pudding.

Herron never had a losing season in his 27 years coaching in Georgia, where he compiled a 287-52 record.

He won state titles at Oconee County (1999), Camden County (2003, 2008, 2009) and Grayson (2016).

Of course, he is best known for his work at Camden, where he built the Wildcats into a national power in 14 seasons in Kingsland. But he continued to win after he left the program, going 31-6 with Class A Prince Avenue in three years and then 14-1 with the Rams in the 2016 campaign.

Last year, the Jackets enjoyed instant success under Herron, who as you might expect scrapped the team’s spread offense in favor of his Wing-T attack.

“Our quarterback threw for 6,000 yards in three years. He threw for 600 last year,” Herron told me after Monday’s evening practice. “He didn’t care. He said he wanted to win.”

And win, the Jackets did. They finished 10-0 in the regular season last fall and won big in their playoff opener against Brynes before losing 28-21 to perennial power Greenwood in the second round of the playoffs to end the season.

Thing is, the Jackets had beaten Greewood 42-7 in late September for their sixth win of the season.

Herron could see what happened coming. His team got the big head, got full of itself, and consequently, got burned early in the playoffs in Class 5A, the largest class in South Carolina.

He reminded them of that Monday in a team chat after their 90-minute practice. Herron called on his big defensive end, Zacch Pickens who is committed to South Carolina, to walk across a log that was maybe two feet off the ground.

Pickens, who wore a white jersey with No. 99 written in green that was borrowed from Frederica Academy because the big guy left his practice uniform back in Anderson, easily walked across the log in one direction.

He stumbled somewhat on his return trip, probably because his cleats were a little wet and the log was likely a little slick after some light evening rain.

Herron pointed out that Pickens wasn’t afraid to walk the log that was barely off the ground, but noted he probably would be scared if that same log was hanging 100 feet off the ground, or even if it were as high as the building near where the team gathered after practice.

Herron said he doesn’t want his team to be afraid of something that has never been done before at T.L. Hanna, and that’s win a state title. (They played for one back in 1974.)

But like walking that log if it had been higher in the air, he felt like his team would have the physical skills to get the job done, but probably not the mental toughness it also would take to complete the task.

“That’s the one thing that concerns me, our mental toughness,” Herron said. “Are we mentally tough enough to win a state champioship?”

The Jackets didn’t have that toughness last year, thus the early playoff exit. Will they have it this year? That’s the question.

If they do, Herron thinks the Jackets have a chance, but as we walked off the practice field, he also noted they need to stay healthy at key spots because depth is an issue and they need to get the right draw in the postseason.

The Jackets certainly have a physical presence on their defensive front in Pickens who chose the Gamecocks over Georgia and Clemson among others.

And the quarterback previously mentioned is four-year starter Alex Meredith, who also is one of the team’s top defensive backs. A smart and skilled athlete, Meredith is already committed to play for Army after high school.

And oh, T.L. Hanna also still has James Robert Kennedy, better known as Radio. Yes, there was a movie made about him not all that long ago.

Herron said Radio, now 71, still comes to the school at least three times a week.

He eats the pregame meal with the Jackets on home game days, runs through the banner with the team as it takes the field, and then usually goes and sits in the stands to watch the game. He normally watches the first half and leaves at halftime to head home.

Radio might just get to see his favorite team win a state title if Herron has his way, either this year or soon.

How much longer Herron, now in his late 50s, coaches, I don’t know.

But, he did tell me he is happy at T.L. Hanna, where he is also assistant athletic director and can earn a full salary while drawing his retirement from Georgia.

He said he likes living in Anderson, too. He has a house on Lake Hartwell and enjoys going down to his dock in the evenings to wet a hook or maybe jump in the water to relax and cool off.

Life is good for Herron.

And, he’s still winning football games, too.

Kevin Price is a freelance writer for AllOnGeorgia with more than 20 years experience in journalism and communications.

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