During a preseason practice on a dreary Thursday morning outside Anniston’s Lott-Mosby Stadium, junior quarterback Spencer Howard commanded his offense like a seasoned veteran.
He congratulated them when they executed a play to perfection. “I likes that. Good job, O!,” he shouted as he carried out a fake.
And he corrected them when it was needed, “Get the snap up,” he said to center Chad Anderson, encouraging a better exchange.
Howard, who’ll make his first varsity start when the Bulldogs travel to Class 5A Erwin on Aug. 25, replaces former standout Josiah Atkins as the Bulldogs starting quarterback. Atkins started four games as a freshman
in 2007 and led the Bulldogs to three-straight playoff appearances, including a Class 4A, Region 6 title and trip to the state quarterfinals as Anniston went 10-3 a year ago.
Howard’s cool, calm and collected demeanor was a far cry from the gun-shy signal-caller who fumbled the most significant snap he took all season filling in for Atkins in the Bulldogs’ homecoming win against Oneonta.
“I’m just trying to get better,” said the 5-foot-8, 165-pounder. “Repetitions, that’s all. I’ve made a big improvement from then, just being focused and confident.”
Second-year Bulldogs coach Eddie Bullock can relate to the skepticism his new signal-caller might incur as he leads a program with a state-championship pedigree. Bullock was met with criticism when the Board of Education was reluctant to make him the permanent head coach after releasing Alex Wilson, who’d guided Anniston to a pair of postseason appearances. Bullock was tagged with an interim title before leading the Bulldogs to its most successful season in a decade.
“I sort of tell Spencer that we’re two of a kind,” Bullock said. “I told him, ‘Being totally honest with you, I get criticized a lot, and I get doubted a lot about my ability to coach the football team.’
“The same thing happens to Spencer. I have to defend him on a daily basis. People don’t believe that he’ll be able to quarterback. I told him that should be motivation to him like it is to me.”
Howard has worked to get acclimated with a new set of targets. The Bulldogs graduated the entire wide receiver core from a year ago. However, he’s got a more-than-capable offensive line in front of him, anchored by 6-foot-7, 276-poud left tackle Dontavious Blair. The Bulldogs also return Isaiah Riggins (6-3, 255) and Chad Anderson (6-1, 240). So, if size matters, protection shouldn’t be a problem.
“We’ve got the talent, and we’ve got the size to be better than we were last year,” said Blair, who’s received interest from virtually every school in the SEC.
And it never hurts to have Troymaine Pope behind you taking handoffs. The 5-foot-8, 188-pound all-state running back rushed for 1,895 yards and 30 touchdowns in 11 games before going down with a slightly torn MCL that kept him out the Bulldogs’ final two contests in 2010.
“He’s going to be alright,” Pope said about his new QB. “You’re going to hear a lot about him.”
Atkins, a two-time first-team all-county choice, said the toughest part for him as a young quarterback was adjusting to the mental aspect of the game.
“He’s about to be a starting quarterback. It’ll hit him sooner or later,” said Atkins, who signed with Mississippi Delta Community College. “It’s tough, but he can do it. He’s got to know every position on that field, including the offensive line and wide receivers.”
The Bulldogs aren’t expecting Howard to do the things Atkins did right out of the gate. They’ll limit his reads and expand the playbook as he develops and gains experience, Bullock said.
Bullock saw emerging leadership qualities in Howard in his ability to follow. He didn’t miss a single workout this summer and was one of less than a handful of players on the roster to hit the weight room every day. He also spent countless hours going over plays and schemes with offensive coordinator Lynn Moore.
“You’d have to give him the respect just based off the work he put in,” Bullock said. “You sat behind Boobie (Atkins) for two years; it’s your time. You’ve got 100 percent support from me. As long as you’ve got support from me, you’re alright.
“Just do what you do. Just play football.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.