When the Columbus High School football team takes the field this fall, there will be some nights the other team has more talent.
The Falcons are aware of this. They plan to offset that deficiency by playing hard and giving relentless effort.
Senior safety Dontae Gillespie will be at the heart of that effort on defense.
“Each day in practice, we stay on the young guys about going hard,” Gillespie said. “That’s the main theme for our season. Even if you make mistakes, you need to do it by going hard. It’s just an incredible amount of effort. That’s what the seniors are looking for from the new guys.
“The young guys are going to have to play right away. It’s our job (as seniors) to make sure they get right in the next three weeks.”
Gillespie has been on the field for good and bad times. His sophomore season featured six wins. Kylin Hill and Tahj Sykes went on to sign Division I scholarships. Last season, Columbus ended the season on a six-game losing streak and finished 2-9.
“We lost our confidence and could never get it back,” Gillespie said of last season. “The first three losses were tough. We had not lost games like that. Everybody was a little shook up. We just never fully recovered. When you start losing, you know everybody is giving their best. It was just hard to put things back together. That’s why everybody is excited about this season. We needed a new start for most of last season.
“Now, that time has come.”
While the Falcons have a clean slate, they also have a new coaching staff. Eric Rice, a former tight end at Ole Miss, takes over for Randal Montgomery as coach at Columbus. All of the assistants also new to the staff.
Rice was head coach at Benton County (Ashland/Hickory Flat) in 2016. He also coached at Hickory Flat Attendance Center in 2017 after it opted to play as an independent and Ashland High fielded its own team, and coached tight ends and fullbacks for four years under Lance Pogue at perennial state power South Panola High. Rice also worked as a coach at Lafayette and North Panola high schools.
“The biggest thing has been effort,” Gillespie said. “It’s a whole new system on both offense and defense. I think we have done a great job of catching on. The main thing is effort. If you don’t know everything, go hard. The coaches are freeing us up to just make plays more, stuff like that. It’s a combination of being young as a team and learning a lot of things.
“They just preach going hard. On each snap, make things happen.”
Columbus is shifting to a 4-3 on defense. A year ago, an undervalued defense kept the Falcons in games as the offense averaged 12 points per game.
This season, as many as six starters return, including the entire secondary.
“Some people slept on our defense last season,” Gillespie said. “If you aren’t winning games, you don’t get the accolades. However, we had some playmakers back there. This season is going to be totally different, though. People are going to feel us.
“The biggest thing is this will be more of an attacking defense. It’s 11 guys flying to the ball. Overall, it’s just a faster defense. There will be less zone coverage. It’s more all in, all the time, flying to the ball. It’s been fun. I think that is what is really motivating the seniors. It’s fun to have a chance to learn some new things.”
After a strong offseason program, Gillespie doesn’t know what his future holds for him. A handful of college coaches have reached out to initiate contact. However, Gillespie and the Falcons will have to maintain their confidence and continue to go hard to help them post headlines.
“As a senior, you have to be motivated,” Gillespie said. “It’s probably 50-50, seniors versus the rest of the team. We know people will be taking us lightly. After last season, this year is about gaining respect again. When you start losing, it’s natural to play for yourself. We have to avoid that this year. Even when times are tough, we have to be all in.
“We want the championship, like every other team. To have a chance to be successful, it’s all about being all in and going hard all the time in everything we do. That’s what the coaches have asked. That’s what we are trying to do.”
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.