2018 Cullman Bearcat football team and cheerleaders (Lifetouch Photography)
CULLMAN – This fall will bring a lot of changes for the Cullman Bearcats as they look to fill several positions on the field, but the most noticeable difference will probably be on the sidelines. This season will be the first since 2001 that head coach Mark Britton will not be there for Cullman. Coach Matt Plunkett, who made the move from Gardendale, was officially named as Britton’s replacement in January.
Plunkett is taking over a team that went to the postseason in 2017 and his earliest goals were just to improve on that team in the offseason. He has seen his kids step up over the course of the spring and summer, and as a result, Plunkett expects this Bearcat squad to have a chance to win every week.
“I think we’ve developed a very competitive football team. I believe we’ll have a chance to win every game in the regular season. I think we’ll go out there and play really hard and in the fourth quarter and it’ll come down to two or three plays whether the game busts open for us or slips away from us, but my goal is that we’ll have a chance to win in the fourth quarter in every game. I believe our strength numbers and the work we’ve put in this offseason will give us the ability to do that,” Plunkett said. “We’re playing against some great competition; our region is really strong, so we need to have some early success and our kids understand that. Their mentality this offseason has kind of mirrored that attitude. They understand that you win games between January and August and you can tell that they’ve been very focused on that. From an attendance standpoint it’s been great. Honestly I feel like we’re a little ahead and I didn’t think we’d be this far along, so I’m excited and I really believe our players are excited.”
One of Plunkett’s more long-term goals is to have the ‘Cats in the top 10 on a consistent basis in the next few seasons.
“From a player’s standpoint, we just felt like we had to get stronger. I didn’t think our strength numbers were where they needed to be for us to be a top 10 6A program. That’s my goal, is to get us into the top 10,” Plunkett said. “Whether that be this year, next year or the year after that, my goal is within three years for us to be a top 10 program. Sometimes you can start out hot and slip into the top 10, but the key is that when that season ends, and they do the final poll, we’re in that top 10 somewhere.”
One of the things Plunkett has enjoyed the most about his early tenure at Cullman is getting to know his coaching staff. He believes that the Bearcats have one of the better staffs in the state and he has enjoyed working with them during this offseason
“Our coaching staff is second to none and it has been awesome working with the guys. They have been awesome and are very dedicated to our players here which is exciting for me as a head coach,” Plunkett said. “The hardest thing to do in high school football is putting together a big-time staff and that was easy here. We’ve got a very good offensive and defensive staff so getting to know those guys and working with those guys in the offseason as a coaching staff has been great. Anytime you can step in at a new job and you’ve got coaches that have been through the fire and faced adversity and come out from it, that’s big. A lot of coaches struggle when that adversity hits and I’ll tell you what, this group of coaches is very close-knit, and they’ve made me a better head coach.”
This year’s Cullman team will have to replace a lot of game experience and production from last year’s squad, but Plunkett doesn’t want that to affect its identity on offense. Plunkett has seen a lot of young players step up this offseason and wants to take advantage of that talent pool this fall.
“That team last year had 31 seniors on it, so all those guys are gone. They were a very veteran team, so we’ve got new faces in a lot of places. The big thing is identifying a quarterback. The good news is we’ve got about six kids that are here from 10th grade all the way through eighth grade that we really like. The bad news is, none of them have any game experience,” Plunkett said. “So, we’ve got some very good talent there, we’re just very youthful. We’re just young and inexperienced so we’re going to take the attitude of managing the games, but I told Trent Walker and Ty Campbell, who are my offensive coordinators, and Luke Hackbarth my quarterbacks’ coach, I’ve never been very conservative offensively. On paper it says we need to play conservative, but we’ve got a find a way to be conservative without showing our hand a little bit because I like to throw the ball down the field. We’ve got some good young playmakers out there that I’m excited about, and Max Dueland is leading the charge as our starter at quarterback and very close behind him is J.T. Blackwood who has had just an incredible summer. We’ve got no shortage of quarterbacks; the future is very exciting there and they aren’t just your average high school players. They have a chance to be record breakers and do some big things.”
Plunkett has high hopes for the skill players on offense this season and he knows that his kids are ready to win now. The Bearcats averaged just over 24 points per game last year and he’d like to see those numbers climb in his first season.
“From a passing game standpoint and being electric, with those young quarterbacks and the talent our offensive staff has, I’m excited,” Plunkett said. “Those kids aren’t looking at this as a building year. They want to go out and there and score points and win for the Bearcats. That’s what they want, and that’s been very obvious in their summer training. You’re going to see a lot of kids plus Dylon Wallace and Peyton Colvard and maybe a little Seth Gable at times, come over and play receiver for us. That’s a lot of bodies, and not a lot of seniors, so that’s exciting for our future and for this year.”
Junior running back Jayden Sullins will be the centerpiece of the ‘Cats offense this fall, and Plunkett has seen him make big strides in the offseason. As a returning part of last year’s offense, Sullins will be looked to as a leader on the offensive side who can move the chains.
“Another kid that you’ll see playing some receiver but will also be our feature running back is Jayden Sullins. Jayden is kind of a guy that we can plug in anywhere and we’re going to challenge him to have a career type of season and really be the guy that people say, ‘If we don’t stop him, we will lose.’ He knows that this year he’s kind of the older guy that is the workhorse and we need to be careful that we’re not putting the game in his hands and we’re spreading the ball around because we need to get Jayden is some one-on-ones. Jayden’s going to win one-on-one, so we’re excited about him. If Cullman Bearcat Football is going to accomplish some of the goals we have for this year, Jayden Sullins needs to have a big year, and that’s no secret.”
The Bearcats will have to replace All-State offensive lineman Tyler Nunnelley this season, but with several other starters coming back and a new addition to the coaching staff, Plunkett is expecting his offensive front to play well together.
“Offensive line-wise the big area that I think we’ve improved in there is just coaching. We’ve hired David Hannah, who is one of the top O-line coaches if not the top O-line coach in the state of Alabama. I would say that with this group, David is just looking for that passion, that heart, that intensity and that great technique,” Plunkett said. “We don’t have that guy up there that’s 6’5”, 320 pounds. There’s no Wesley Britts or Spencer Regions, so we don’t have that big body, but we’ve got a really solid unit of 6’0” to 6’2”, 250- to 280-pound guys that are going to work well together. We feel like we’ve identified our top six for sure and Coach Hannah wants to identify our top eight that can play on Friday nights.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the ‘Cats had to make some moves at the linebacker position, but as a result, there will be two experienced seniors in the middle of the Black and Gold defense this season. Plunkett credited Defensive Coordinator Matt Hopper with the defense’s early success in fall camp and looks forward to seeing what he can do with this unit throughout the season.
“Defensively, when I got here and looked at some film I thought, ‘Man with all we’re losing defensively we’ve got to find some linebackers.’ So, Ezra Burks was a no-brainer to move to the linebacker position and he has been that key defensive leader day in and day out at mike linebacker for us,” Plunkett said. “He’s really smart, plays hard, he’s a big hitter and he’s always around the ball so just teaching him the game has been the big thing for us. Dylon Wallace will be the guy right beside him at will linebacker. He was second on the team in tackles last year and just absolutely is around the ball every play and does a great job in coverage and blitzing. The kid’s just going to be tough to block and he’s just active and productive. I could not be more proud of the job Matt Hopper has done with our defense here. He and I have worked closely together with our defense and Matt’s done a fantastic job. Our players love him, he’s a Cullman guy and I just know that I’m a better coach because of Matt Hopper.”
One of those senior linebackers, Wallace, talked briefly about how the offseason has gone for the Bearcats.
“We’ve been really hitting the weights and our conditioning just to get ready for the season. I’m really excited to see how we do this season,” Wallace said. “He’s (Plunkett) really hardcore and he’s trained us hard, so I expect a lot of wins.”
Wallace has had to take on a bigger role as a leader this year as a senior and so far, he’s adjusted well to the coaching change and is looking forward to getting back on the field.
“We’ve just had to step it up and be leaders this year with a new coach and everything, just getting everybody to cooperate with the change and it’s been pretty fun,” Wallace said. “I like our new head coach a lot. It’s a grind with him. It’s a lot harder than it was my past three seasons, but I’ve really liked it and he’s getting us really prepared.”
With so much youth hitting the field for Cullman this fall, a lot of people are expecting a bit of a rebuilding year from the Bearcats, but Plunkett and his team are ready to surprise people.
“I would think that those kids would be pretty mad at their coach if they thought I was just looking forward to 2019. I’m not; I’m looking forward to 2018 because these kids are going to prove some people wrong, and that’s their motivation,” Plunkett said. “They want go out and play really well this year and do some big things, so the sky’s the limit for this group.”
2018 Cullman football schedule
Aug. 23 v. Jasper
Aug. 31 v. Mortimer Jordan
Sept. 7 at Decatur
Sept. 14 v. Columbia
Sept. 21 at Albertville
Sept. 28 at Hueytown
Oct. 5 v. Athens
Oct. 12 v. Muscle Shoals
Oct. 19 at Hartselle
Oct. 26 at Fort Payne
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