It’s hard to forget the smile on Eddie Bullock’s face the day he learned Anniston’s lot in reclassification.
Reporters gathered around the Anniston football and girls’ basketball coach at Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum, and he smiled the smile of a man who faces many challenges in his job. The world had just thrown him a new one.
Anniston’s move up from Class 4A to 5A became reality at the beginning of this school year, just in time for football season. Now, Bullock must come up with more depth in a game that requires 11 on the field at all times.
And that smile? Well, better to smile than the alternative.
“The 5A schools, we were only three (students) over (the cutoff),” he said. “We’re the third-smallest 5A, so the other 5A teams got more to choose from than what we have. Our student population, due to seven classes, was not as big as some of the other teams that we’re going to be playing, and it makes a difference.”
Throw in the fact that Anniston returns eight starters from a team that finished 5-5 and just missed the 4A playoffs a year ago, and Bullock will have to take a young team up in class.
“It’s going to be a little hard because we’ve still got people coming on,” said senior quarterback Quint Dobbins, a second-year starter. “We’re just young kids coming along.”
Bullock had 67 players on the roster heading into preseason camp. It’s not a bad number for 5A ball, but some players will have to play on multiple units.
“I’m a firm believer that, whoever your best 11 is, put them on offense,” Bullock said. “Then, when you go to defense, whoever your best 11 is, put them on defense. Then, as guys grow, you can relieve other guys.
“Right now, I’ve got some guys” that have to play both offense and defense and, in some cases special teams.
The most intriguing of those is athlete Tae Miller, who camped at Oklahoma this summer.
Bullock sees Miller playing wide receiver and quarterback in “wildcat” offensive sets. Miller will also play cornerback on defense, return punts and go deep in kickoff returns.
“Tae Miller is one of the best on offense, and he’s one of the best on defense,” Bullock said. “Tae has been getting so much playing time since a freshman. He can play anywhere I put him on the field.
“He can play safety. He can play corner. He’s going to be my punt returner and my deep man on kick return. He can quarterback. He can throw it. He can do a lot of wildcat things, so I’m going to do some wildcat stuff. I’m going to kind of move him around. You’ll see him everywhere.”
Other multi-role veterans include Dobbins, who will see time at safety or linebacker. Defensive end Dast Sturkie also looks to see time at tight end and tackle on offense. Elijah Jackson and Tyler Johnson project to play on both lines.
“We’ve got some other offensive guys that didn’t play last year,” Bullock said. “Depending on how they come through, if they come through like we want them to, that’ll allow me to use Tyler somewhere else.
“He can still be a backup lineman. I’m counting on those guys to come through.”
The good news is that Anniston’s top playmakers, Dobbins and Miller, are veterans. Bullock is counting on Dobbins to grow as a leader.
“Last year, when he was a junior, he was still trying to figure out things,” Bullock said. “In football, at the quarterback position, as a junior, the game is still very fast to you. Once you become a senior and you go through the spring and the summer of your senior year, the game should slow down for you.
“Some of the mistakes he made last year, he shouldn’t make those same mistakes — throwing into double coverage and things like that.”
Bullock also has a new potential playmaker in receiver Hakeem Ross, a basketball player who came out for football in spring and figures to play multiple roles.
“He had a great spring game. He’s got great hands,” Bullock said. “Right now, first year playing football up here, and he can tell me everything that everybody on the offense is supposed to do on any given play.
“He knows what’s going on, and he can catch and has good speed, so I’m looking for a lot of things out of him. He’s just going to be an all-around player.”
Bullock knows he has to maximize players such as Ross, Miller and Dobbins. Anniston also needs younger players to develop and give the Bulldogs additional depth over the long first season in 5A.
The good news about the move up is that familiar teams will make the same move with Anniston. Alexandria and Lincoln, both in Anniston’s 4A region a year ago, will be in the Bulldogs’ 5A region this year.
The will align with Mortimer Jordan, Moody, Springville, St. Clair County and Hayden.
As daunting as the challenge seems for a young team at the low end of 5A’s enrollment scale, Bullock is hopeful. Anniston missed the playoffs just once in the fifth-year head coach’s tenure and reached the 4A semifinals in 2011.
“We should make it to the playoffs,” Bullock said. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll make it to the playoffs.
“My goal is to go as deep in the playoffs as you can, but you’ve got to make sure you can go. You can’t have a lot of injuries.”