SOUTHINGTON, Conn. -- As the weights clanged away behind him, creating a cacophony of clean lifts and bench presses inside the Southington High School weight room, D.J. Hernandez spoke of doing the little things to be successful.
He emphasized respect and getting on his players about the small nuances — things “they can control.”
He spoke of high expectations, all while firing off answers about his time playing and coaching in Austria, UConn football, and his younger brother, Aaron, the New England Patriots’ rookie tight end.
Southington’s new head football coach is proving he can balance a lot of things at age 24. He doesn’t include lip service among them.
“Hey,” Hernandez called over to one of his players as he finished his conversation.
“Come over here,” he added, directing the athlete to do push-ups in a different part of the weight room.
“Why?” The player asked.
“Because all you were doing was talking,” Hernandez answered, leaving the teenager with a puzzled look that begged how the seemingly distracted coach could have noticed.
If he needed to, Hernandez would have given the same answer: It’s the little things.
“He’s a natural coach,” said Rob Lunn, Hernandez’s former teammate with UConn and the Carinthian Black Lions, an Austrian pro football team. “But he’s also a players’ coach. D.J. is the kind of guy who will scream at you on the field and tell you to get the hell up. But you don’t resent him for it because he’s working just as hard as you are, if not harder. That’s a tough line to walk, but he seems to do it effortlessly.”
Hernandez starts walking it tonight when Southington opens its first season under the former UConn quarterback at South Windsor.
Hired in May to replace Bill Mella, who left to be an assistant at Wesleyan University, Hernandez takes over a team he ran all over while starring at rival Bristol Central. He also takes the reins of a program just four years removed from back-to-back Class LL state championship appearances, but is coming off a 5-5 season.
He’s one of, if not the, youngest coach in the state. Last year, as Southington’s quarterbacks coach, was his first coaching in any high school system. But Hernandez has a “pedigree,” Mella said. He and Southington athletic director Eric Swallow feel Hernandez’s interesting path to high school head coach makes him more than capable.
“We asked him one question (in the interview) that was, ‘What do you think is more important: Offense or defense?’” Swallow said. “And he said, ‘Team.’ That’s a pretty strong answer.
“I didn’t really look at age. That’s not a disadvantage to me. … His philosophy and methodology have been all-inclusive, and whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, his mentality is the best players are going to play. That comes from his background.”
Hernandez was Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior in 2003, when he became the first player in state history to rush and throw for more than 3,000 yards in a career. At UConn, he threw for 515 yards and six touchdowns as a redshirt freshman and improved as a sophomore, throwing for 849 yards and nine scores.
But when the Huskies brought in Tyler Lorenzen to play under center, Hernandez willingly moved from quarterback to receiver. A captain over the next two seasons, he caught 47 passes, leading the Huskies to a victory in the International Bowl in Toronto in 2008.
His next move was to Austria, where he served as offensive coordinator and quarterback for the Black Lions. He even assumed head coaching duties late in the season after the original coach left to handle a family matter.
Hernandez remained as head coach the following year, and left as “hands down, as the best player in the league the last two years,” according to Lunn.
“No one even compared,” Lunn said. “A lot of that doesn’t have so much to do with his physical ability, but he did game plan for guys; he put the time in the film room.”
He’s making a home for himself there now, if it was almost by accident. Hernandez, who has a degree in human development and family studies, will earn his master’s degree this spring, and spent last fall searching for an internship in a guidance department.
While visiting Southington, he happened to run into Mella in the school’s main office. The two struck up a conversation and, in a matter of weeks, Hernandez was on the sidelines as quarterbacks coach.
“It was kind of a cool occurrence. But he jumped in with both feet and wanted to know everything and anything we did,” Mella said. “And then he learned it all, though. In a week or two’s time, he could speak intelligently about our offense and defense.”
Hernandez also began leaving his mark, helping mold the team’s pre-practice routines and planning.
Now, as head coach, his practice structure mimics that of UConn coach Randy Edsall, Hernandez said.
“D.J. is a leader and it didn't surprise me that that’s what he wanted to do in terms of wanting to coach,” Edsall said. “He was a player-coach over in Austria. You just see the type of person he was. He was a take-charge guy, he was a leader, and a lot of times that’s what coaches are.”
Hernandez already has some parts of it down.
Though the Blue Knights started practicing Aug. 18, Hernandez asked that the media not come until Aug. 25, giving him uninterrupted time with his new team. Even talking directly before the season, he doesn’t reveal too much of his plans, saying Southington will likely be more balanced than the spread formation Mella ran. Speed is a strength, though one he wants to improve, and Hernandez is confident in senior quarterback Connor Butkiewicz.
Past that, his vision for Southington is simple.
“There’s more to the game than X’s and O’s,” he said. “It’s about having the kids understand that you care about them, because when you care about someone, they realize that and anyone is willing to fight that much more and work that much harder for a person.”
Hernandez continues to intern within Southington’s guidance department, hoping to land a full-time job there, but if not, close by. His days start before 6 a.m. and most times don’t finish until more than 12 hours later.
His focus remains here; he has no plans of returning to Austria.
“Gotta' grow up some time, right?” he said with a wink.
He has. And he will.
“I think we’re all going to find out what kind of a head coach he is as he goes along,” Mella said, “but I can tell you this: He’s got a lot of passion for the game, he’s got a great knowledge for the game and he’s got a lot of passion for the kids who play the game. You can’t replace that and you can’t manufacture that. What attracted me to D.J. was his willingness to jump in, work hard, learn everything and learn it perfect. And then, coach that way.”
Matt Stout is the assistant sports editor at the Norwich Bulletin. Since arriving in Eastern Connecticut in 2007, he’s covered everything from high school sports to minor league baseball, serving primarily as the newspaper’s beat writer for the UConn men’s basketball team (2007-2009) and the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun (2007-present). A 2006 graduate of Boston University, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.