LINCOLN — There’s a new feeling at Lincoln, and it’s not so much about the reclassification bump up to 5A.
It’s a feeling that current players within the varsity football team have never known. For the first time since 2010, the same head coach who finished the previous season will return.
That’s right. For the first time since Chad Martin finished the 2009 season and returned for 2010, Lincoln will have the same coach for two years in a row.
And stability in the form of 1995 Lincoln graduate Brad Wallace is having an effect throughout the program.
“It means a lot to some of these guys,” senior defensive tackle and recent Auburn commitment Jaunta’vius Johnson said. “I know they have a lot of trust in Coach Wallace and the way he’s done things and brought up the young guys and how they work.
“Like, the ninth graders and junior high, I can see it in them already. They see us working, and it works all the way down, and that’s a benefit to Lincoln.”
Stability couldn’t come at a better time. Lincoln takes a young team into 5A, but it’s a young team that’s more than a year old in the Wallace way.
In a program that saw beloved coach Keith Howard die of a heart attack after the 2009 season opener, then saw Martin, Charlie Dampeer and Ryan Herring come and go before Wallace, two years in one system is novel.
As Wallace worked through his 13-year stay as defensive coordinator at Washington County (Ga.) High School, he followed his alma mater through its constant transition.
“This is my hometown,” he said. “I’ve been over there and reading the newspapers, trying to keep up with the school, and things just kind of got on a carousel with coaches after coaches after coaches.
“You’re sitting there thinking, that’s my friends’ kids playing out there. They shouldn’t be going through this.”
Wallace, who played for Lincoln during Alan Brooks’ 28-year run as head coach, got the Lincoln job on his third try. Wallace applied when Dampeer and Herring were hired.
Wallace’s first season was mild success. The Golden Bears went 4-7 in 2013 but 4-3 in their 4A region, good enough to make the playoffs. They won four out of five games after losing their first three.
But 2013 was all about “stopping the bleeding” and building trust, Wallace said.
“I told the kids, hopefully, I can stay here for 25 years,” he said. “This is where I’m wanting to finish up.
“I hope this is my career school, but it’s going to take a lot of Ws to keep that going. I just want to give them some stability.”
It took a while for Lincoln’s players to believe and buy in.
“I noticed things started turning around about February,” Wallace said. “I could open the door, and I’d have about five or six kids just wanting to come in and talk.”
By that time, the building for 2014 was well under way. The Golden Bears launched into an intensive offseason program the Tuesday following their first-round playoff loss to J.O. Johnson 49-16.
Wallace toughened the offseason weight and conditioning. He toughed spring practice.
To motivate, Wallace used the after taste from Lincoln’s losing its final three games in 2013. He also began cashing in the trust he had earned.
“I think when they a started this year and realized, ‘Hey, he’s here for two years,’ I think it registered,” Wallace said. “It’s taken a little time, but the kids seem to be responding to what we’re doing.”
Perhaps nobody has responded more than Wallace’s most high-profile player.
Johnson — a three-star prospect who announced Aug. 6 his choice of Auburn over Alabama, Louisville and Kentucky — has lost 25 pounds and six inches of waistline. At 323 pounds and with added strength, he’s playing at a weight he can carry and be athletic.
“Auburn coaches, when they were looking at him, Auburn and Alabama coaches, the first thing they said was, ‘Man, he’s trimmed up,’” Wallace said. “He’s done a lot of work on his own, so that’s his work ethic.”
Johnson, who can step in at left offensive tackle but looks to focus on defensive tackle this season, also became a team leader.
“I knew somebody had to step to the plate,” Johnson said. “It was me, (offensive/defensive tackle) Austin Blanton and (running back/safety) Mario Howard, and they told me to get it. Me and Mario sat down, and I told him, ‘I’ve got the linemen. You get the skill guys.’ He said, OK.”
So, Lincoln has chemistry on its side.
The Golden Bears also have returning starters like Johnson, Howard, Blanton, defensive back Justin Knight, running back/defensive back Runyae Bell and guard/defensive end Nick Embry.
There’s also Zay Caldwell, who will move from wide receiver and replace departed quarterback Chance Byrd.
It took Byrd half the 2013 season to get healthy enough to bring the running presence Wallace wants at quarterback. Caldwell enters the season ready to run.
“Zay brings wheels,” Wallace said. “Wheels to me is running. He’s a running quarterback, which, with our offense, we’re very similar to what Auburn does.
“He gives us an opportunity to get out on the edge. He’s an extra running back in the backfield for us, after all of our read fakes and stuff.”
With that and young talent Wallace has molded this offseason, the Golden Bears make the jump from 4A to 5A. They’ll make the jump with nearby rivals Alexandria and Anniston, but the region also includes Hayden, Moody, Mortimer Jordan and Springville.
“It fired us up,” Johnson said. “Some guys were scared, but I told them, ‘That’s football. You’ve got to go through with it.’ Then, as linemen, we took it on as a challenge.”
Wallace can relate.
“I was in transition when I was in school, from 3A to 4A,” he said. “I knew what that transition was like.
“Now, we’re going from 4A to 5A. Now, we’re going to play big-boy ball. We’re excited about this season.”