Knights working toward next Thursday's opener

Arab’s projected starting QB, James Ed Johnson, watches practice last week. Standing beside him is Arab Junior High QB Drew Puccio, who also missing practice because of issues with his legs.

Arab coach Lee Ozmint and his staff have 85 players out for football this season.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is, under the current pandemic circumstances, that’s too many to fit into the lockerroom at “The Pit” fieldhouse, using proper social distancing guidelines. Monday, while all teachers at the school were dealing with new procedures for their classrooms, most necessitating moving desks, chairs and furniture, Ozmint learned what will be required of his lockerroom.

Lockers will be spaced out so that each player will be 7 feet apart when they dress and undress for practice. To do that means assigning some players to what used to be the visitors lockerroom at the old stadium, where the Knights hold almost all their practices.

Lockers at the new stadium will be similarly laid out for both teams for the Knights’ five home games.

Arab opens next Thursday (Aug. 20) at Albertville. Arab plays host to another Marshall County rival, Guntersville, the following Friday (Aug. 28). This all assumes the regular season starts as scheduled.

Ozmint doesn’t like the new arrangements one bit, but he understands this is no ordinary high school football season. Arab High students will begin school Thursday, the day of the opener, but only roughly half the students will attend (last names starting with A through K; see story on page 1A). Students whose last names start with K through Z will attend Friday.

The following week, attendance will follow a similar pattern, continuing on through Labor Day weekend, when plans will be reassessed. In the early weeks, at least, no student will attend school on Wednesdays.

“All this means we won’t have a full team (all the time),” Ozmint said. “It’s tough on the kids. When they’re not at school, it’s tough.

“Kids are a lot like adults. They’re creatures of habit. I have a routine myself, and when I get off it, it can be a distraction.

“We just have to adjust, get dialed in a little better, and deal with a different schedule, a hybrid schedule. This is all being done to mitigate the spread of (the COVID-19 virus). We understand this.

“But it’s a different routine (for the team), obviously, because the first day of school, we have a football game.”

To be clear, there will be practice in the afternoons as usual, even for players who don’t attend school that day. Still, the different routine is hard to ignore.

“We want to keep them safe,” said Ozmint, who added he’s never had a “divided” lockerroom before. “It’s a burden to move our players and we don’t want to, but really we have no choice.

“I’ve never had to do that (split players into different lockerrooms), but if it means we play football…

“We’ve got to protect the kids first. In my case, we’ve also got to keep them focused on becoming a good football team amid all these distractions.”

To that end, the staff has leaned on its 14 seniors to provide leadership to the younger guys in these trying times.

“For the most part, they’ve been stepping up and showing leadership,” Ozmint said. “Being a leader means taking ownership. It’s easy to be a leader when everything is going good. It’s during those tough times when it really matters.

“We’ve had some show vocal leadership, and it’s not limited to just seniors. We’ve got some juniors stepping up, too.”

One of those juniors is James Ed Johnson, who has the unenviable task of replacing record-smashing Ross Reynolds at quarterback. Arab’s high-flying offense scored the second most points in the state last season in Class 5A.

Arab is now in 6A, playing against the likes of Oxford, but Ozmint is confident his players can compete, and he’s sold on Ed Johnson to lead the offense.

“He’s a very cerebral kid,” Ozmint said.

And very talented. He and his twin, John Wesson, have been top players in their age group going back to their days in travel ball. Both were forced into starting roles as true freshmen because of injuries. Now, both have matured physically as well as mentally and emotionally, and both are ready to make huge contributions on the varsity.

Wes will play receiver and defensive back.

Ed, who was forced into playing time at QB as a freshman, unfortunately suffered a lower leg injury on the first day of pads last week and is questionable for the start of the season. Senior Alex Alcala, who officially was Reynolds’ backup last season, will fill in at QB if necessary, according to offensive coordinator Michael Darden. Coaches have moved Alcala around to various offensive positions because of his versatility.

Alcala, along with Ed Johnson, played QB in Reynolds’ absence two seasons ago, so he has the talent and experience in the role. Sophomore Aidan Cox is another possibilty.

Ed Johnson is confident he’ll be back under center soon.

“It’ll work out,” he said. “It always does.”

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