Then the season went south. The Golden Eagles didn't win another game after Oct. 5 and a once promising year ended with them on the outside looking in. The task now is to finish the job.
A year ago, Jacksonville surprised some people by winning five of its first six games. But something still somewhat mysterious to the Golden Eagles happened at the midpoint in the year and they lost their last four games.
All they had to do was find a way to finish.
“That is definitely something we want to make sure that we do,” Smith said.
“With our region being as tough as it is if you lose two games in a row you could go from first to fifth real quick.
“What we have to do is continue to make progress and strides. We have to make sure we’re playing as good at the end of the year as we were at the beginning. There wasn't a defining moment. We were getting breaks early in the year and it seemed like we weren’t getting those breaks late in the year. It all boils down to making sure we peak at the right time and learning to play well late, how to compete late in the year when it matters."
With 14 seniors and 14 returning starters (eight on offense, six on defense), including a dynamic duo in the backfield, the Golden Eagles appear to have the ingredients to make it happen.
Jackson Bell returns at quarterback after a season in which he rushed for more than 500 yards, passed for more than 1,000 and accounted for 17 touchdowns.
In addition, Dominque Thomas returns at running back to build on a season cut short by a high ankle sprain. He rushed for more than 100 yards in all eight games he played and finished with 1,420 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also caught 17 passes for 124 yards and two scores.
"He's always going to be there when you need yardage and when you're in trouble," Bell said. “When he gets a head of steam, he's hard to stop. There were plays last year he got bunched up in the middle, got out of it and turned on the burner and was gone. He's just a beast."
The other returning starters on offense include receivers Sid Thurmond and Payton Sims, tight end Miles Clark and linemen Benjamin Reeves, Nixon Hobbs, Josh Barnes and Kevin Mitchell. Thurmond was the area's third-leading receiver in the regular season with 37 catches for 541 yards and seven touchdowns. The two new starters will be freshmen -- tackle K.J. Satcher and Nick Gangwer.
The returning defensive starters include lineman Kevin Reese; linebackers Savon Parker, Malik Reed and Lavontae LaCount; and cornerbacks Thurmond and Elijah Cunningham. Several first-year players will supplement them. Parker led the team in tackles last season as a sophomore.
Smith’s first season with the Golden Eagles got off to a great start. They won their first three, including a 42-35 shootout over Cherokee County, and also beat Anniston on the road in overtime 20-13. It was their first win over the Bulldogs since 1999 and their first win over them on the road since 1968.
But after that emotional win at Lott/Mosby Memorial Stadium, they weren’t winning the close games anymore. They lost to Lincoln 45-35 and Cleburne County 21-20 in consecutive weeks and suddenly momentum of a breakout season was gone.
They were still playing for a playoff bid in Week 9 but lost their final region game to Alexandria and then their season finale to Saks, Smith’s old team.
"Nobody expected us to come out an do much because of the reputation Jacksonville had," Bell said. "But we came out to a roaring start and then I guess we kind of got satisfied because we'd never been there before. Nobody had been there, so we really didn't know how to take it all in and do what we had to do to finish the game. Losing those close games really took the air out of us.
"We know what we can do now as a team and in the off-season we were really working on finishing stuff."
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577..
Jacksonville at a glance.
Head coach: Clint Smith (5-5 in one season at Jacksonville, 43-42 overall in eight years, including 38-37 in seven years at Saks)
Last year’s record: The Golden Eagles were 5-5, including 3-4 and tied for fifth in Class 4A, Region 5. They missed the playoffs.
Outlook: If the Golden Eagles are ever going to make the playoffs, this might be the year. They have experience and talent. If they can find a way to finish games and the season, they could be making their second trip to the playoffs in 13 years.
Aug. 30, vs. Pleasant Valley
Sept. 6, at Hokes Bluff
Sept. 13, vs. Cherokee County
Sept. 20, at Munford
Sept. 27, at Weaver
Oct. 4, vs. Anniston
Oct. 11, vs. Lincoln
Oct. 18, at Cleburne County
Oct. 25, vs. Alexandria
Nov. 1, at Saks