Jeff Norris is back at the helm of the Alpha Omega Academy football program, and bringing with him a style of play not often seen at the six-man level.
Norris stepped away from the Lions after the 2016 season — with the need to spend time with family, as well as a taxing hour-plus commute each way to Porter every day, driving his decision to resign.
However, Norris returned to Alpha Omega as head coach in March. With his family having since moved to Huntsville, he doesn’t see himself going anywhere.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” the coach said.
Norris took a year off from coaching in 2017, but felt the itch to return last season. As a result, he joined The Woodlands John Cooper — who went 9-0 before falling to Fort Worth Country Day in the Southwest Prep Conference 3A title game — as an assistant coach.
Working under longtime John Cooper coach Brent Landrum, Norris gained 11-man experience that he plans to carry over in his return to the Lions. Included in this is an Air Raid offense, something that is certainly a change-up from typical six-man philosophies — such as the power run attack that Norris ran in his previous stint at AOA.
“I learned a whole new offense while I was there,” he said. “It was the most successful season they’d ever had, and I picked up a lot of things in that year. It’s stuff that I thought we could do here, and it’s stuff that really nobody else is doing at our level.”
At the center of Norris’ offense will be junior Cole Garrison, who is moving to quarterback after playing running back and receiver during last year’s run to the TAPPS Six-Man Division II state title game.
“It’s a little rough right now, but it’s smoothing out a little bit,” said Garrison of the transition. “The biggest challenge is probably just being aware of everything on the field at all times, because you don’t really need that at any other position.”
At the six-man level in particular, a dual-threat quarterback can drastically impact the tone of a game. Norris believes that if Garrison continues to develop, he can become such a threat, forcing the defense to cover the entire field every play.
“He’s a weight room champ, he’s a strong kid that can run and he’s physical,” Norris said. “For us to be able to have him as a dual-threat, especially in six-man, to have your quarterback be a threat with his legs helps you a lot. His arm is live, we just have to work on his accuracy and confidence. ... Physically, his ceiling is up there.”
Other key pieces of the offense figure to be senior Joel Balch, who will be an integral receiving threat at the center position, junior Jacob Poteete as an inside receiver and the duo of junior Vanya Benson and sophomore Todd Gladish in utility back/receiver roles as the guys that Norris “will want to get matchups for.”
As the Lions shake things up offensively, they have undertaken a challenge this summer to help them with the change — competing in a 7-on-7 league, that outside of Alpha Omega, is comprised entirely of 11-man teams. Although AOA is at a numbers disadvantage, with a handful of eighth-graders helping to fill out the roster, the team is confident that the experience will poise them for success.
“It’s good to compete against players of that type of tier,” Poteete said. “That way when we get to our district, we’ll be prepared, having already faced bigger teams.”
“The 7-on-7 is a little bit different for us because we’re at a pretty big numbers disadvantage,” added Norris. “But, when you translate that to what we’re doing here, and you have a quarterback that can run and throw, then you have a numbers advantage (against six-man teams).”
One player in particular that has stood out to Norris since the Lions hit the field for spring practice, and through the start of 7-on-7, is Gladish. The coach points to the speedy sophomore’s natural route running ability and chemistry with Garrison as reasons for optimism.
“I knew Todd when he was in middle school, but I’ve been blown away by his ability,” Norris said. “He’s got great hands and he runs routes. ... He’s the kid that knows how to run a route, and runs it right every time.”
Gladish played sparingly as a freshman last season, but still made his impact felt — he returned the opening kickoff for touchdown during a victory over Bryan Allen Academy in the regular-season finale, which served as a de facto district championship game. Primarily though, having only started playing football in sixth grade, Gladish used the season as an opportunity to soak up knowledge from the veterans on the team.
“Probably just my overall strength mentally,” said Gladish of his greatest improvement throughout the year. “The older guys last year helped a lot. I stayed patient and learned from (then-senior running back) Nick Vincent. He mentored me, and it’s helped prepare me for this season.”
After stringing together the deepest postseason run in school history last year, the Lions will look to build off their state runner-up finish. With several players coming back from that group, they’re hungry to take the next step.
“It’s a confidence-booster,” said Poteete of last season’s run. “We’re ready for the playoffs because we’ve been there. We just need to work from there, and set our goal to win state.”