Donnie Harris has been a man who has dedicated himself to Pioneer football for over two decades. He has coached at the middle and high school levels, and he has also coached on the defensive and offensive sides of the ball.
During the past week, head coach Matt Turner has turned to the man he originally turned to run his offense, when he became head coach in 2019. The new offensive boss is the same as the old offensive boss, which means Donnie Harris is the offensive coordinator for Squad#53 in 2021.
The change is something Harris has taken in stride, much as he has persevered through changes in his football coaching career. No one knows how well Donnie Harris takes changes better than Chris Madewell.
Harris coached with Madewell at both the middle and high school. Chris Madewell described Donnie Harris perfectly in one sentence. Madewell said, “He is a student of the game, and he puts a lot of time and effort into whatever he does.”
Donnie Harris explains what he loves about coaching football in simple terms. Harris said, “I love starting with a blank sheet and seeing how these guys grow into football players over time.”
Coach Turner said, “Donnie lives and breathes football. He’s real familiar with the passing game and I think I have a pretty good feel for the run game. So it will be a situation where he calls the passing plays and I call the running plays. I have confidence in him and I know he’ll do a great job.”
Donnie Harris is someone Matt Turner can trust to run the Pistol-Wing the way Rick Stewart taught the Pioneer staff to run it two years ago. Stewart is the person Matt Turner pursued to teach him and his staff the Pistol-Wing offense. Harris has studied it and understands it, although it has been challenging.
Harris drew a simple example on the dry board and labeled the plays. He said, “If a play goes to the right, we do not use a word that begins with “r.” We start the play going right with “left,” which is opposite of how I learned to call plays – before we started this Pistol-Wing system.”
There is another challenge Harris will have as offensive coordinator this year. There will not be a quarterback who can break a broken play or a particular run into a touchdown several times a game. The offense will operate differently this fall out of necessity and by design.
MAJOR OFFENSIVE DECISIONS
Harris will have to decide who will start with head coach Matt Turner, which will determine which plays the team will run. Without question, the offense will line up predominantly the same way it did last year. There will be a quarterback in the pistol, a form of the shotgun. There will be a tailback behind the quarterback and two wings split on the ends. Who actually fills those positions will help determine the plays the Pioneers run.
Nate Elrod and Alex van Vuuren are splitting time at quarterback, but Elrod has a lot more football experience. Elrod will also be expected to play safety on defense. Both Elrod and van Vuuren are exceptional athletes who also play basketball. Harris likes what he sees at quarterback.
Eli Cantrell is the leader at tailback, and Cantrell will also be playing linebacker. Jaythan Pleasant is competing for one of the wing positions, and Harris believes Pleasant has a lot of potential.
Braylon Grayson could line up at tailback or at either of the wings. Grayson will also be playing linebacker with Cantrell on defense. Harris described Grayson as a player who has multiple skills on offense. Grayson has exceptional hands and can also be a big threat catching the ball.
Coach Turner said it took Tullahoma about 10 plays to figure out what Grayson was doing in their 7-on-7 competition. Grayson caught the first touchdown pass last season for the Pioneers. Harris was Grayson’s and Elrod’s head coach in middle school.
The line is a work in progress. Offensive line coach Isaac Slatton said he had a shortage of potential centers for the Pioneers, and Harris concurs. The Pioneers will be switching personnel around on the line to determine who can best play at particular positions. Players who are in the mix include Dayton Jernigan, Chandler McCormick and Will Davis.
Potential tight ends are Bryce Stembridge and Ethan Bernhardt. One thing that offensive coordinator Donnie Harris will be looking to achieve are multiple options on offense. There will be buck sweeps and belly plays that one expects, and hopefully the tight end will become a receiver at times. All of the offensive options are contingent upon the new athletes learning their assignments.
The top receivers appear to be veteran Harley Hernandez and newcomer Kaden Rutledge. Donnie Harris said Hernandez is a valuable returning player, and that Rutledge is clearly an athlete with a lot of football ability. Rutledge simply needs time to learn the assignments he will have on offense.
A junior, this is Rutledge’s first year playing football at the high school level.
It may sound self-evident to state that success depends on personal knowledge and execution, but that is the essence of what the entire coaching staff is preparing the team to do this summer.
THE LOVE OF THE GAME
Harris expressed his love of coaching this way. Harris said, “If you get into coaching, it either grabs you or it doesn’t. You either leave it, or you cannot live without it. The biggest enjoyment I get in addition to working with the young men, is working with the staff and coming up with a plan. Then introducing it, installing it, and teaching it to the kids. Watching them grow with it, mastering it. Then they take ownership of it. That is when it really gets fun – when they come back to you and tell you what we need to be doing.”
Warren County Middle School assistant coach, 1998 – 2003, with head coaches Nathan Smith, Chris Madewell and Jeff Watson
Warren County High School assistant coach, 2004-2007, with head coach Chris Madewell
Warren County Middle School head coach, 2013-2018
Warren County High School, assistant coach 2019 - present