Prattville Lions are serious business

You are one of the top teams in all of high school football. Some believe you're the best program. You have multiple state championships. You are envied among your peers.

This best describes Prattville High School in Alabama. The Lions have won four state titles and a few years back finished as the No. 2 team in the country. This season, some polls list Prattville as the top team in the nation. The POWERADE Fab 50 ESPNHS Football Team Rankings have them at No. 13. And at noon Saturday on ESPN, Prattville will face a serious test against what many feel is the top program from the Sunshine State -- Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas, ranked No. 4 in the Fab 50.

Prattville is coming off an uncharacteristic 8-4 2010 season, and they are a hungry bunch of Lions. Meanwhile, every team that takes the field against them will have a little extra incentive, hoping to knock off one of the country's best and proudest teams.

"Everybody was a little disappointed after dropping four games last season," Prattville head coach Jamey DuBose said. "It's the most loses since I have been here. In this town people equate Prattville football to Alabama or Auburn. That's how things are. Our kids have to show up because we get everyone's best game. Is the pressure too much? No, that's why you want this job. This is a special place."

What makes Prattville special? Like many small towns around the nation, football is more than just a game. It is a city's pride and joy.

"A Friday night game around here, the town shuts down," DuBose said. "Our style of football is fast and physical, and our fans love their football. It's like the Steelers or Browns fans. They love their winning, too."

Perhaps no one knows the Lions more than Jimmy White. For almost 60 years he has been the team's statistician.

"You could say that I like Prattville," White said. "I came over with the Santa Maria -- or was it the Pinta? I have been keeping stats on and off since 1954. I have not seen them all, but I have seen a lot of the wins. There have been over 500. They are ranked No. 1 in the nation and everyone knows. But it was like that even before. I think the real change in Prattville football came around 1990. Our population grew from about 5,000 to over 30,000. We went from being not even in a classification to 2A. Now we are 6A."

Since 1984, Prattville has won state championships -- 1984, 2006, 2007 and 2008. The 2011 season has a chance to be the best one yet. The Lions have experience on their side, with a group of seniors that numbers nearly four dozen. Of that group, several are considered among the top recruits in the state of Alabama, including defensive tackle Justin Shanks (committed to FSU), athletes Justin Thomas (Alabama) and De'Ante Lawrence (Southern Miss), offensive guard Caleb Gulledge (Alabama), safety Derrick Moncrief (Southern Miss), quarterback Jalen Whitlow (Arkansas State), cornerback LaRonji Vason (Wake Forest) and defensive end Jay Minor (South Alabama). Meanwhile, offensive lineman Matt Gray, running back George Rowe, cornerback Lawon Debardelaben, and athlete Jeremiah Gardner have scholarship offers, while standout junior offensive tackle Austin Golson has committed to FSU.

"There is a lot of pressure on the seniors," Shanks said. "We are supposed to be the best class to come through Prattville, and we have to keep the tradition going. No doubt, it's a big thing. We sometimes talk in meetings about legacy and past players, like Bobby Greenwood, Romar Harper, Nick Perry and all those guys. We have to keep the chains moving. We have to."

The head coach agrees. DuBose knows that games still have to be played. Press clippings don't win football games.

"On paper, athletically, this is one of our top groups," DuBose said. "Look at the offers some of our kids have and where they have committed. It has to be one of the top groups we have had here. That's all good, but winning on Fridays is the most important. All that matters is where you get in this state. We have been given that lofty ranking, but what are we going to do with it?"

Like many communities around the country that love their football, Prattville has a feeder system with two youth leagues -- Youth Prattville Lions and the Youth Cats. The goal is to get the kids into football early and teach them the basics.

"There is a great opportunity to play football in this town," DuBose said. "That's why we try to encourage all our kids to play and be active. Football teaches hard work and discipline, and that's great for our youth, community and country that these kids are involved."

The Lions' varsity team has 165 players this year, but typically has about 150. The junior varsity is part of the varsity squad, but only players in grades 10-12 dress for games.

On the 2011 roster, many played their way up starting with the Youth Prattville Lions, including Moncrief, Vason and Golson, while big men Shanks and Gulledge played for a rival youth team. Sam Gibson (LSU), Nick Perry (Alabama), Roman Harper (New Orleans Saints) and Kevin Turner (former New England Patriot and Philadelphia Eagle) are all players who went all the way through the Prattville ranks.

"About 10 years ago we set up to do what the high school does," said Doug Gibens, one of the Youth Prattville Lions coaches. "We run many of the same plays and things that the varsity does. We start the system out and teach fundamentals. Our kids go to the games and wear their jerseys, which are the same as the high school. They look up to those guys, and those guys come back and talk to these kids. It's like going to school and starting in kindergarten."

Prattville is now getting ready for this weekend's monster doubleheader at Hoover High School, in which four of the best programs in high school football will square off: Prattville versus St. Thomas Aquinas, and Fab 50 No. 41 Hoover (Ala.) versus No. 16 Batesville (Miss.) South Panola. Collectively, this quartet has 20 state championships, most of which have come in the past decade.

"I wish I could go sit in the stands and watch this thing," DuBose said. "If you are a football nut, this high school football doubleheader is so exciting.

"Josh Niblett at Hoover and before him Rush Propst, have both done an outstanding job. They are tremendous and that's who we're still chasing -- Hoover. You say the words South Panola and people know who you are talking about. St. Thomas Aquinas is as elite as they come. I am just happy to be on the same field. I told this to our guys and explained to them what this means. I want to go out and play well and show off Prattville football -- fast and physical."

For Prattville's seniors, there is no better way to begin their final season. It's more than just a game for Shanks and his teammates.

"It's an honor to play this game against St. Thomas Aquinas," Shanks said. "So many people are making this a big deal, like it's the SEC championship game. Alabama versus Florida. We want to show that Alabama is the best. It's the first game of the year on national TV. It's ESPN. We can showcase our talents, our team and start out the season with a bang. If you are not pumped now, then I don't know when you would be. For us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

La. DT excited season is here
The excitement is clear in the voice of Marrick Charles (Destrehan, La./Destrehan). The senior defensive tackle plays for one of the top programs in the Bayou State. They don't kick things off officially for another week, but he's still excited about Friday night.

"We have a jamboree tomorrow against Lutcher," Charles said. "They've got that running back, Daniel Taylor. He's nice. I can't wait. I am in better shape than ever and I am going to help my team get to where we need to get. I have improved in a lot of areas, especially in the leadership category. I am motivating my teammates and leading the team in the right direction. We don't have a main leader on the defense, but Bryan Singleton and I try to be those guys."

Charles, 6-foot-2 and 310 pounds, says that two SEC teams, Arkansas and Tennessee, are in the lead among those he's considering.

"You know, I just grew up a fan of Tennessee," he said. "For whatever reason, I have always liked the Vols. Arkansas has Jericho Nelson and we have always been good friends. He always tells me great things about that program.

"Right now I have 12 offers. Memphis was the last school to offer me. I also like Texas A&M, Southern Miss, Alabama and Pitt."

Charles said he wants to set up official visits to Pitt, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama, and he wants to attend games this fall at LSU, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Of the schools he mentioned, Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M have not offered.

Nkemdiche doesn't disappoint
Junior defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (Loganville, Ga./Grayson) has received a ton of hype and publicity through the past several months. To be honest, it is deserved. The 6-4, 265-pound recruit from the Peach State has a chance to be something special before it's all said and done for the class of 2013.

At the Corky Kell Classic in the Georgia Dome last weekend, Nkemdiche didn't disappoint. He played exceptionally well on defense, constantly facing double and even triple teams. He made plays and wreaked havoc more often than not. Offensively, he ran ram tough for Grayson, spot playing at running back. In fact, he scored the game's only touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

For all his athleticism and size, the thing that stood out above all else was the effort he gave on every single down. The kid is relentless and plays with an outstanding motor.

Oh, did I mention he was playing with a cast on his right hand? Nkemdiche sustained a thumb injury in practice this fall and was basically playing with a club from his fingertips to his elbow.

It's scary to think that he still has his entire junior and senior campaigns to develop as a player. And what a player he has a chance to be.

Commitment slowdown
It looks like we are in a little of a slowdown period with the verbal commitments. Pledges were flying left and right for a better part of the spring and summer. But with the football season upon us, the commitments will most likely hit a speed bump. Since last Friday, there have been only eight BCS commitments.

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.