Justin Taylor is a foxhole kind of guy.
The new Weaver football coach says he learned to think of life on a football team that way while playing under Michael Shortt at Cleburne County and hearing Shortt’s speeches on the subject. What does a foxhole mentality mean?
For sure, Taylor showed it while a junior offensive and defensive tackle at Cleburne County, upon hearing a doctor’s diagnosis of what should’ve been a season-ending knee injury. Taylor wasn’t about to miss the Tigers’ playoff run, which stretched five games to the 4A final, against UMS-Wright.
He played all five games in a brace.
“He played the state-championship game with a torn ACL in his knee,” Shortt said. “Being a lineman, sometimes you can get away with that, but he was so strong and had worked so hard.
“He just told the doctor, ‘I ain’t worried about what it does to me in the long haul. I’m worried about this team.’ I knew then, we’ve got a good one.”
The Calhoun County Board of Education voted to approve Taylor’s hiring Thursday at Wellborn High School. Taylor, 33 and a 2003 Cleburne County graduate, comes to Weaver with 15 years of experience as a student assistant and assistant coach, serving as Cherokee County’s offensive coordinator the past seven years.
He replaces Daryl Hamby, who announced last spring that he would retire after coaching football and basketball during the 2018-19 school year. He turned the basketball team over to Marcus Herbert in November.
Taylor was one of nine coaches interviewed for the job, including some in the Calhoun County system, Weaver principal Mike Allison said. Allison culled the nine from a field of 39 applicants.
Weaver made the Alabama High School Athletic Association playoffs eight out of nine seasons under Hamby, a long-time assistant at Alexandria and Weaver before taking over as Weaver’s head coach in 2010. The Bearcats reached the 2016 quarterfinals.
Hamby coached one season beyond the graduation of son Dalton to see it through with the current group of seniors, which includes play makers like quarterback Robert Gaines, running back Shamar Spinks, wide receiver Amardric Elston and fullback/defensive end Caleb Allison.
The Bearcats must replace the bulk of their offense while trying to stay in the upper half of a brutal Class 3A region, which includes the past two state runners-up in Piedmont and Randolph County plus 2017 4A semifinalist and 2018 3A quarterfinalist Saks. Wellborn is seen as an up-and-coming challenger in that region, and vastly improved Pleasant Valley had its best season in years last season.
Mike Allison said he didn’t specifically seek an offensive mind.
“You can do a multitude of things and be successful,” he said. “The thing you’ve got to sell your kids is, the thing you’re doing is the best thing out there, and he’s going to be able to do that.”
Taylor is “energetic” and will “work hard,” Mike Allison said, and those were the major selling points. Allison also said Weaver will retain “several of our assistants,” though “we might have one or two new ones come in.
“A lot of our guys still want to coach, and he’s going to meet with them and see where we’re going to be and what need they can help with.”
Taylor said he does not see the Weaver job as a complete rebuild because of key player losses.
“A lot of the production is gone, but I think Coach Hamby did a good job,” he said. “There’s still a lot of good pieces in place, offensive line and a couple of other pieces here and there, and it’s good to build on.
“The success they’ve had over the last several years, it was intriguing to me to continue to do that, so it’s not a complete rebuild.”
Taylor served as a volunteer assistant at Cleburne County while attending college at Jacksonville State, where he earned a degree in social services and certificate in physical education. While doing his student-teaching, he also coached freshman ball at Oxford for a year, working under then-Oxford assistant Todd Bates, now an assistant coach at Clemson University.
Taylor also spent a year at LaFayette before going to Cherokee County, where he coached for eight seasons under Tripp Curry, a Mike Battles disciple who retired after the 2018 season. For seven of those seasons, Taylor served as offensive coordinator.
“The big thing about Coach Curry is making sure you’re getting the job done and finding different ways to do that,” said Taylor, who was named teacher of the year at Cherokee County in 2018. “They have expectations. When I first got there, one of the mottos they had, going back to (2009), when they won the state-championship game, was ‘Expect to Win,’ and to make sure that, everything you do, you’re expecting to be successful at.
“If you’re preparing, you’re expecting to be successful.”
Taylor is one of several Cleburne County graduates to volunteer coach under Shortt while attending college. By his senior year at JSU, Taylor had impressed Shortt enough to earn the chance to call plays for the junior-high team, as a volunteer assistant.
“I said, ‘You’re going to be an offensive guy, aren’t you?’” Shortt said. “He said, ‘Hope so.’”
Taylor called the plays during the final seven of his eight years at Cherokee County. Health problems prevented Shortt from coaching Cleburne County’s game at Cherokee County on Oct. 26, but Taylor used a familiar formation to pay tribute to his high school coach.
The Warriors lined up in a wing-T then shifted to their normal alignment on their first offensive snap. Taylor sent a screenshot of the wing-T alignment to Shortt about 11 p.m. that night, after Cherokee County won 24-6.
The picture came with a message.
“He reminded me, ‘I still ain’t beat you while you were on the sideline, because you weren’t there, and it don’t mean as much,’” Shortt said. “Then he said, ‘but I did something for you. …’
“They lined up in the old wing-T and honored me. When he was in school, we ran the wing-T all the time. I kind of thought that was pretty neat.”
Shortt was still recovering from intestinal issues, which required multiple surgeries and kept him out of work most of 2018. File the wing-T screenshot gesture under what Taylor learned from Shortt, ‘foxhole’ principles that apply to friendship, as well as coaching.
“That’s always stuck with me, that I always want to be the guy in the foxhole, that they want to be with me,” Taylor said. “I’ve always worked as hard as I could to make sure nobody could question how hard I was working or how dedicated I was.
“That’s the same kind of mentality I hope to instill, wherever I’m at.”