Joe Medley: Herring, Oxford showed right stuff in his first year
by Joe Medley
Nov 19, 2013 | 1948 views |  0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tuscaloosa County's Omar Jones (28) takes a hit from Oxford's K.J. Adams in first round high school playoff action at Oxford High School. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
Tuscaloosa County's Omar Jones (28) takes a hit from Oxford's K.J. Adams in first round high school playoff action at Oxford High School. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
MADISON -- Ryan Herring remained in a sad locker room, after the last of his Oxford players exited Friday.

While some players walked back out onto a soggy, Madison City Schools Stadium field to hug and bid final farewells to the season, their first-year coach cupped his hands below a faucet and splashed the water on his face.

His hair was growing back noticeably, just a few weeks after players shaved his head and the heads of three other coaches to celebrate a victory over Pell City.

His mood was growing back, too, after a 28-24 loss to Bob Jones in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.

What came into focus for the last man standing amid the cramped, cinder-block accommodations was the season that had just ended, not the calls that wiped a touchdown off the scoreboard twice.

A team that lost its entire offensive line after not making the playoffs a year ago and didn’t have its best returning defensive player until late in the season did all right.

That 0-2 start gave way to a nine-game winning streak.

Running back Racean Thomas’ injury-pruned start gave way to a 2,000-yard season.

And to think what almost was.

“Unbelievable,” Herring said. “Unbelievable.

“We start out 0-2, and everybody was writing us off. Before the season, a lot of people thought we’d struggle to get in the playoffs, and then we had a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter on the region champions, Clay Chalkville.

“We were almost region champions.”

It’s hard to see Herring’s first Oxford season -- and Thomas’ last -- as anything other than a success that was almost a bigger success.

If Thomas doesn’t go down with an ankle injury at Clay Chalkville, does Oxford surrender a 27-14 lead?

If not for a holding call behind the play on quarterback Ty Webber’s would-be touchdown scramble and wide receiver Jake Cook being called out in the back of the end zone on fourth down, the Jackets might still be playing.

Then again, that final seven minutes against Bob Jones showed how far Oxford came in two months.

Once again, Oxford was without Thomas. He went down with another ankle injury in the fourth quarter, and the Jackets had to go without their five-star running back.

This time, they drove down the field without him. The same drive marked by Thomas’ fateful run around right end ended with those two would-be touchdowns.

Were the officials’ calls right? It’s hard to tell from across the field, in the press box, amid the lighting of a high school stadium and without the benefit college-game camera coverage and television replays.

That’s not the point.

What was striking was that Oxford drove on into scoring position without Thomas, not once but twice. After seeing those two touchdowns called back on the same drive, the Yellow Jackets scored on their next drive but couldn’t recover the onsides kick.

It was the mark of a determined team that overcame not just loss of its entire offensive line from 2012, but the losses of college-signed defensive players like Trent Simpson and Ulric Jones.

It was a team that finished second in its region despite injuries to Thomas and the spring knee injury that kept linebacker Weston Caldwell sidelined until he saw spot duty late in the season.

Yes, it’s nice to have a player like Thomas, who still turned in 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns despite missing all but two halves of Oxford’s first three games and the final seven minutes of the last game.

Having a running back that can make nine tacklers miss on one play helps an all-new, smallish offensive line quite a bit. The Auburn commitment was a generational player on the high school level and looks more than ready to play in the SEC.

And he contributed more than his amazing runs.

“I’m so proud of him,” Herring said. “I thought he grew up. He matured so much over the course of the season, it was unbelievable.

“Not physically, of course. He’s already a physical specimen, but mentally and as far as being a team leader, he matured just an unbelievable amount, and that was great to see.”

It’s also nice to have a player like receiver Tredarian Gamble, who followed Herring from Lincoln and caught 65 passes for 1,132 yards and 13 touchdowns.

But Oxford had toughness enough to bounce back from that 0-2 start and drive on once Thomas was lost in the final game. That says something about a coaching.

The son of an Oxford coaching legend, Herring showed that he brings more than a love for his alma mater and a family name. His team responded.

“We changed almost everything -- terminology, weight program, different style, everything you could think of, uniforms,” Herring said. “We changed it all.

“So, I’m proud of the kids just for buying in and working.”

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576. On Twitter, @jmedley_star.

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