Postseason football returned to the Denham Springs High campus last fall when the Yellow Jackets hosted a playoff game for the first time in two decades.
“I don’t think I’d ever seen the place so filled up,” DSHS offensive lineman Kyle Hyde said.
The Yellow Jackets took an early lead against district rival Zachary that night, but little else went right in a 35-10 setback that ended their season in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.
“We hadn’t been on that stage and had to learn from it,” coach Dru Nettles said. “Hopefully, we’ll be better the next time we get there.”
Riding the momentum they built with a strong finish last year, Nettles and the Yellow Jackets have to believe their next shot on the big stage is coming real soon.
On offense, DSHS can look to sophomore running back Tyre Golmond, who emerged as one of the area’s top young talents in rushing for 1,365 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman. On defense, the Yellow Jackets have an LSU commitment in defensive end Caleb Roddy, as well as four more seniors returning as starters.
All told, DSHS returns 14 starters from last year.
The other two Class 5A teams in Livingston Parish, Walker and Live Oak, are breaking in new head coaches as they look to join the Yellow Jackets in making their own push for the playoffs.
Walker turns to 27-year-old Brandon Lawley, the rare 20-something head coach in the state’s highest classification. Lawley served as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2014 but this year will focus more of his attention on rectifying a Walker defense that last season gave up 48 points per game.
Brett Beard takes over at Live Oak after helping Woodlawn rebound from a 1-9 season in 2012 to make playoff appearances in each of his two seasons there.
Nettles enters his 11th season at DSHS with expectations for the program at a new high.
The Yellow Jackets not only won a playoff game last year for the first time since 1989, but they nearly upset Zachary during the regular season in a game that decided the District 4-5A championship.
They won six of their final nine games following a 1-2 start.
“We can’t live on last year’s finish and the success we had and where we got,” Nettles said. “We’ve got to get out there and work. We can’t live on last year. We have to earn everything we get.”
Senior quarterback Torez Kinchen enters his third year as a starter, and he showed much improvement last season as the Yellow Jackets transitioned to a spread offense.
But the strength of the team is found in a big offensive line that can count on as many as eight players to contribute.
Three starters return up front. Junior offensive tackle Justin Henderson, 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, rejoins the program after spending his sophomore season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“All eight of us are able to basically, if asked to, play any position on the offensive line,” Hyde said.
No team returns more experience than Walker, which welcomes back all 22 starters from last year.
But that’s to be expected considering the Wildcats started 17 freshmen and sophomores and dressed four seniors, a recipe for disaster that helped lead to their 0-10 finish.
“The best way to describe it,” Lawley said, “we were a JV team playing a varsity schedule.”
The offense nonetheless pulled its weight, averaging 24.3 points behind quarterback Terry Bozeman, who led the state in passing with 3,282 yards and threw for 31 touchdowns.
But all those big numbers were mostly out of necessity.
The Wildcats were in catchup mode — and forced to put the ball in the air — pretty much the entire season thanks to a defense that allowed 40 or more points in eight games.
“Throwing for all those yards, that was a personal accomplishment,” Bozeman said. “But I want to win games. I want to go to the playoffs. We’re not going to have to throw the ball on every down this year.”
Not if Lawley can make the kind of impact on defense that he did last year on offense.
Leaving the offense mostly in the hands of assistant Jason Smith, Lawley will work closely with co-defensive coordinators Gary Coates and Jonathon Mailhes and will call the defensive plays.
Meanwhile, standout tight end Kyle Nevels has moved to middle linebacker.
“I would say that’s where the biggest change is,” Lowery said. “Defense is where we really look to make an improvement.”
Walker has not made the playoffs since 2001 and went 7-33 during former coach Dwayne Severio’s four seasons.
The rebuild at Live Oak may not be as daunting.
The Eagles were essentially a 5A playoff bubble team in three seasons under Tut Musemeche, barely squeezing into the 32-team field his first year and then barely missing the postseason the next two.
Enter the 6-4, 285-pound Beard, a former Vanderbilt and Southeastern Louisiana defensive lineman whose physical presence alone should command the respect of his players.
During a recent Live Oak workout, Beard jumped into the bench press and threw up 29 reps of 225 pounds.
“It’s made this a little bit easier,” Beard, 34, said of his physical stature. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter.”
But Beard has the smarts of a Vandy grad to boot.
Woodlawn showed marked improvement in Beard’s two years there, increasing its win total by three games in his first season and securing a home playoff game in his second.
Beard said what has impressed him about the Live Oak players is their willingness to work.
“The commitment is just ridiculous,” he said.
Slippery running back Will Higgenbotham has been a staple in the backfield for years, and he should get plenty of chances in an offense Beard hopes will wear on opponents with 10- and 12-play drives.
The biggest question is who will replace three-year starter Michael Claverie at quarterback.
Senior Ryan Morris and junior Dylan Wang entered fall camp in a two-man race behind center. Beard would prefer playing one quarterback but did not rule out using both.