Pads begin popping on Gwinnett gridirons

From most coaches’ perspectives, the high school football season never truly ends, and the dividing lines from one season to another begins when their players start hitting the weight room each winter.

Still, most coaches will also admit there’s something special about the first time teams are able to practice in pads each preseason.

For Gwinnett County’s 23 football playing schools, and many more like them throughout Georgia, that day for the 2013 season has arrived.

“It’s a process,” said Jason Conner, who will this afternoon conduct his first practice in pads since becoming head coach at Duluth High School after serving as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. “We start off with, of course, with no helmets, with weight training and conditioning programs. Then we transition to a five-day acclimation period, … and those five days are two-hour practices and, they’re only in a helmet and mouthpiece. Then, when we put the pads on, I really look at that as the start to football because of the physical nature of football. It lets us know what players are going to rise to the level of football that we’re going to have to play.

“Physically, it separates the men from the boys. There’s no other way to put it.”

As demanding as Conner makes it sound, no one is looking forward to the first day of hitting in pads more than the players.

And few have more reason to look forward to it than those players at Norcross, who officially begin defense of the Class AAAAAA state championship they won last year.

While Blue Devils coach Keith Maloof admits there is something a little different about opening practices as defending state champions, he’s hoping to see his players take a more workmanlike, business as usual, approach.

“I really believe the kids are excited,” Maloof said. “They’ve worked extra hard in the offseason. It’s not as much a big deal for the older kids who’ve been out on the field before. It’s more of a big deal for the younger kids who have to prove themselves.

“It all depends on whether you want to be looking up or down. We had the attitude where we worked hard last year, but this group hasn’t done anything yet, and we’ve got a big target on our backs. This group is going to be held on its own merits.”

While the challenge for teams like Norcross, defending Class AAA state champion Buford and other long-time powers like Brookwood, Grayson, North Gwinnett and Parkview, among others, is to stay hungry, the challenge at others programs is to make a name for themselves.

And today’s first day in pads is the first of many challenges ahead, and one that will whet players appetites for success.

“Football is a contact sport,” said Duluth senior linebacker Amari Barrett. “When you put on the pads, we say here at Duluth, it’s taking it to another level. As Coach Conner said earlier, this is where we find out who’s going to be our hard hitters on the team. Who’s going to make that play to get their name in the paper Friday night.

“We’re excited. We can’t wait. Conditioning this summer has been brutal. We’ve definitely taken conditioning to another level, and … the final step is to put on the pads and see who’s men and who’s boys.”

While the intensity at most practices will remain high, one thing that might not be — at least, comparatively speaking, will be the temperatures.

While the weather is supposed to be quite warm throughout the first week of practice, what has been a relatively mild summer is expected to continue for the most part.

And the chances of thunderstorms are also expected to be low compared to what it has been during a fairly wet summer, and coaches like Maloof definitely appreciate the chance to get some work in early on without being interrupted by the weather.

“Yeah, we’ve been really lucky this past week,” Maloof said. “We haven’t had to miss much because of the rain.”