New Coach Clayton George Sees Tyler Lee Football As Program With Endless Potential
TYLER -- A morning walk around Tyler Lee's practice stadium will tell you all you need to know about where the people in charge want to take the football program. The site just feels a little different than in years past.
There is a screen on the north fence Under Armour made for the team that is supposed to block prying eyes while also advertising who practices on the field. New Under Armour equipment on the players. A flying camera drone above the fence that takes video of players' alignments and the like.
One day, and maybe sooner than later, the Red Raiders program might be East Texas' answer to Southlake Carroll. A big-school program that is almost never the area's most athletic, but a disciplined program that digs really deep when its back is against the wall and pulls off something miraculous to save the game.
New head coach Clayton George, a Southlake Carroll offensive coordinator two separate times, is mostly the man behind these immediate changes and the first strides toward lofty goals.
"It started Jan. 4," George said after Wednesday morning's practice. "Changing the culture. The culture that we want to have. The Red Raider culture. The Raider pride. We're big into family. We're big into the team is more important than the individual. So, again, all that we're doing is geared around that. The selfishness has to be eliminated. Everybody has to believe they have a role and a part.
"When they do that, when every man, every coach and every player accepts that, you have a good chance of getting the Ws. These kids are buying in. They're a physical bunch. We're continuing to work on our mental toughness, and it's all coming together. I'm very pleased with our first three days."
Lee had the bare bones foundation to be a good Class 6A team a season ago -- including the region's most explosive offense -- but it often gave off warning signs it was not going to be a contender even before the losses really piled up.
The Red Raiders buried Lufkin through 23 minutes of play, 42-3, and lost the game in overtime of Week 2 for an 0-2 start.
It played its best game of the season a week later -- a 69-38 win against arch rival John Tyler to close non-district play -- and then dropped its first two district games to middle-of-the-road teams.
From there, Lee strung three straight wins together to jump back into the playoff picture.
Then, in a must-win game at Rockwall to save its season, it gave up a 44-7 halftime deficit and showed how resolved it was to lose by an emotionally blank walk back to the locker room whereas Rockwall jeered off in celebration.
That 2015 team got lost multiple times. And former head coach Darrell Piske was its casualty, even after the Red Raiders won a gritty Week 10 game to Garland Naaman Forest for a final record of 5-5.
Now, there were some positives at the end of the season. Five players got picked up to play various levels of college football, headlined by quarterback Zach Hall's commitment to Stephen F. Austin.
The season also generated college interest for now-senior safety MaKyle Sanders and raised public awareness for current junior quarterback Chance Amie.
Sanders started last season. Amie started three games in lieu of an injured Hall and put up almost the exact same numbers.
Linebacker Campbell Miller and defensive end Nathan Niedrauer were other bright spots. Both of those guys are returning.
Sixteen starters on this year's team are rookies, however. And Lee is tabbed to finish last among seven other teams in District 11-6A by Dave Campbell's Texas Football magazine and TheOldCoach.com's Friday Night Football magazine.
"We always have goals," Amie said. "One goal is to go undefeated. Lead and help everybody get better as we go. We're really changing everybody's opinion of us because, right now, it's not very good. But we're going to try our hardest. We have been all summer."
Amie stands to be the biggest winner of George's hiring.
George coached Chase Daniel during his first stint at Southlake Carroll and also dabbled with the signal callers behind Daniel in Greg McElroy and Riley Dodge.
Daniel went on to become a decorated quarterback at Missouri and is now preparing for his seventh NFL season as a backup quarterback. McElroy won a national championship at Alabama in 2009 and lasted three years in the NFL before becoming a football media personality. Injuries derailed Dodge's college career and he is now a positional coach at Flower Mound Marcus.
George left after Daniel's senior year to become the head coach at Dallas Hillcrest and led that school to two straight playoff appearances. That program had missed the postseason for 10 straight years.
Haltom City hired George for the 2006 season but lost him after the campaign when former Southlake Carroll head coach Todd Dodge was hired as North Texas' head coach off a state championship win.
George returned to Southlake Carroll after a rough 2010 North Texas season and inherited his old role under Hal Wasson. He subsequently coached college-bound quarterbacks Kenny Hill and Ryan Agnew plus current Southlake Carroll starter Mason Holmes.
Hill graduated as a blue chip recruit, enrolled at Texas A&M, started a few games there and is now part of TCU's football team as a potential option to start the upcoming season. Agnew has had no issues as a San Diego State quarterback.
Each Southlake Caroll quarterback since 2002 has accepted a Division I football scholarship opportunity, so the future is very bright for Holmes.
"I was really excited," Amie said. "I knew right off the bat that when he first talked to me that he really means business. Like he was telling me, it's going to be a partnership. We're about to really, really have fun. I already knew I was going to fit into this offense well, and the coaches fit in well."
George is equally excited about Amie, who is 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds as a junior.
Amie completed 42 of 72 passes for 910 yards in his three starts plus about two additional halves of action last season and had nine touchdowns to one interception. He also ran for several hundred yards.
"To walk into a program and find out Chance is our starting quarterback -- Just his physical presence. He has nice size, a really live arm, great feet. He's a true dual-threat quarterback," George said. "It's a true pleasure to coach him. Kind of starting from scratch. We had to hit the ground running as soon as he got through with basketball and get our quarterback training going.
"He had a great spring and an even better summer. The first three days of practice, he has been outstanding."
There are more difficult issues to address.
George can't afford a non-competitive defense.
Lee gave up an average of 49.1 points against per game last year and often undid an offense capable of 44.8 points a game.
"I think it starts in your offseason," George said. "We want to play fast, play physical and play smart. We want to play full speed for seven seconds. Everything we do in our program is geared around that. We train, lift, run, do our 200 (meters), do our 'Raider Maker' spring ball. Summer strength and conditioning, that's our mindset.
"Defense, you've got to play fast and play physical. I was pleased in spring with where our defense came. Obviously, I feel like we have the best defensive coordinator in the state in Tony Holmes. I put full trust in him. If he's running the show, then good things are going to happen."
Holmes, a 15-year coaching veteran and a former Texas defensive back, was on the Southlake Carroll staff with George. Aside from defensive coordinator, he coaches inside linebackers and is the track head coach in the spring.
Finally, George can't afford an undisciplined team.
But that might be where the Red Raiders have made the absolute most headway.
"We have a thing called study hall," Sanders, who has three Division I FBS offers on the line, said. "If you have one zero (on a homework assignment), you have to go to study hall. If you don't have that zero fixed by the end, you're running."