COLLINSVILLE – Ernie Willingham might have taken a year off from coaching high school football, but he sure hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
During DeKalb County’s high school football media day in Rainsville earlier this month, Willingham – now in his 20th year overall as a head coach – joked about the situation that led him back to coaching at Collinsville. He took the Panther reigns again for a third time in his career in late July, following the departure of Daniel Garrett for Class 4A Rogers.
“The principal (Bradley Crawford) called, and he asked me what I thought. I said I think you need to open it up, find somebody good, and hit a home run,” Willingham said. “He said ‘What if I can’t find anybody this late?’ I said ‘Call me back.’ Then he put out a press release.”
Not only is Crawford glad to have Willingham back, but the Panther football players are as well.
“I absolutely love his attitude, and just the way he carries himself on the field,” junior quarterback Keaton Deboard said. “I’ve missed it so much the past year. It’s a good thing we got Coach Willingham back because we understood all his terminology, so the transition’s been pretty smooth.”
“There was a week-and-a-half, two weeks where we didn’t know if we were going to have a head coach, if we were just going to roll with our interim coach, Coach (Chris) Conde,” junior lineman Jordan Coker said. “I think that made us grow closer together in the long run, but with him (Willingham) now back, we all knew him. I think we’re ready to go.”
It’s been about as smooth of a coaching transition as the Panthers and Willingham could’ve hoped for. Now they’re hoping it translates on the field.
The Panthers went 6-4 in 2020 under Garrett, just missing the Class 3A state playoffs in their first year since moving up in classification. Their defense kept them in most of their ball games (giving up an average of 16.2 points per game), but the offense struggled to score at times. They scored an average of just under 11 points per contest.
“They had a really good defense last year. We’re going to try and build off that,” Willingham said. “We lost of good players off that defense last year. We lost the linebackers and most of the secondary people, so we’ve got a lot of holes to fill over there.
“We’re really hoping we can be more diverse on offense and move the ball around, be a little bit more balanced than last year, maybe score a few more points.”
Deboard is expected to be one of those playmakers on offense.
“Keaton is a real good athlete. He’s real heady and smart,” Willingham said. “He was the backup quarterback when I was here before. He got to play a lot because we blew some people out pretty good. He’s a good one. He’s a dual-threat quarterback. He can run it and throw it. He does a good job of running the offense and taking control in the huddle. He’s a good leader. The kids listen to him pretty good. He’s going to do a good job for us I think.”
In the backfield with Deboard is junior Fernando Padilla and sophomore Andres Garcia.
“We’re back and forth, from one back to two backs, but Fernando Padilla and Andres Garcia will play some running back for me,” Willingham said. “They’re both good athletes and good kids. I think they’re pretty hard-nosed runners.”
Deboard’s top receiving targets are expected to include junior Colton Wills, senior Carson Dennis, and sophomore “sniffer” back/tight end Eli Griggs.
“If we play a tight end, Colton Wills will play one of the outside receivers. He’s a big, tall athlete who can run and jump. I think he’s really going to be a weapon for us. Carson Dennis played some inside and outside receiver when I was here last time, so I’m expecting him to do a good job there. Eli Griggs is also a good player for us.”
A mix of experience and youth comprises the Panther offensive line. Coker will be making the calls at center. Senior Seth Brown will start at one of the guard spots, while freshmen Rajuess Rooks and Fredy Rivera will swap in at the other guard. Juniors Trevor Terrell and Aiden Daniel will be the Panther tackles.
Rooks, Rivera, Brown and Daniel will double along the Panther defensive front. Coker, Padilla, Wills and Terrell are the Panther linebackers.
The Panther secondary is young. It includes freshmen Jamison Coker and Tytan Morgan starting at the corner spots. Deboard and Griggs will also patrol the secondary.
Deboard and fellow seniors Tristan Gallegos and Roberto Diaz will handle the punting/kicking duties.
“Everything’s been going good,” Willingham said. “A lot of these kids played for me – Keaton Deboard, Jordan Coker, Fernando Padilla, Seth Brown. All those guys, they were basically off-and-on starters for me when I was here the year before last. A lot of those others played JV and they ran the same stuff. All of the coaches but one coached with me when I was here the last time, and that one played for me. Everybody’s familiar with what we do.”
Collinsville gets a tune-up for the regular season this Friday night at home with a scrimmage against Pleasant Valley. The Panthers open the regular season at home against Section on Aug. 20.
Collinsville competes in Region 7 along with defending state champion Fyffe, Plainview, Geraldine, Sylvania, Asbury and Brindlee Mountain.
“Fyffe was head and shoulders above everybody last year. They lost a lot of people, so maybe that race will tighten up a little bit,” Willingham said. “Plainview was the second-best team. They’ve got most everybody back. Some of those other guys, and I hope we’re in that mix, are fighting for 3 and 4 (playoff spots). Sylvania is going to have a lot of kids. Geraldine is going to be really good. We’ll just have to see where we fit into that mix.”