By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK -- Johnny Burnett can be one tough taskmaster.
New Massanutten Military Academy football coach Chris Gilliland knows that all too well, having played for Burnett as a cornerback early in his football career at VMI. That intensity, that fire -- that's a big reason why Gilliland packed up his belongings in his native Florida, left a promising job as an offensive coordinator at East Gadsden High School and headed north to take on the task of helping to turn the Colonels into winners. With Burnett as defensive coordinator, Gilliland thought MMA was the right place at the right time to take the next step in his coaching career.
"That was really a driving force for me, the fact that I knew I had a guy I could trust who would be the same guy that coached me at VMI, who still will be kind of an influence on me," Gilliland said, "not only to help me grow as a coach, but to kind of show me the ropes about how things were going to work in a different environment and a different setting.
"That's one thing I knew these kids would never have [otherwise] -- even if every single one of these kids goes to a different college, they'll never have a defensive coach with the amount of experience and expertise at defensive line, linebacker and secondary than they will with coach Burnett."
Burnett has the resume to back that sort of confidence. A veteran of nearly four decades of experience as a college assistant, Burnett made coaching stops at, among others, the Air Force Academy, West Point, Oklahoma State (defensive coordinator) and VMI (defensive coordinator). After coaching at Cal Poly for three years, Burnett took the job at MMA -- his first experience as a high school coach -- when his wife, Barbara, took a job at the academy.
It's been ... different.
"What really hurts in a place like this is that too many of your best players have to play too many positions for too long," Burnett said. "Two weeks to get ready for the game, that's adequate for us to put in stuff. But it's more frustrating from the standpoint of not knowing who you're going to have and not having enough of them. Right now we're struggling with that, from having some depth at some positions to no depth at others."
After running a 4-3 defense for most of his career, Burnett had to shift to an odd-man front late last season to compensate for a shrinking roster due to injuries and a few dismissals. That odd-man front will likely be back this season, but more by design. Of course, since Burnett didn't know exactly who he would be coaching until Sunday registration, when players started to arrive on campus, he didn't have a lot of time to plan for the change.
"We had to wait," Burnett said. "I've got enough experience where I've run a whole bunch of different defenses in college, so I just told Chris we're going to wait and see who we have. Right now we're low on big bodies -- lineman type guys -- so we're going to play with more linebacker types and play a different defense."
If Burnett is tinkering -- to put it mildly -- with the defense, Gilliland is in full construction mode on the offensive side. The Colonels ran a wing-T look under former coach Todd Baldwin, but that's long gone now.
"We weren't totally sure how many kids we were going to have during Sunday registration," Gilliland said. "We weren't sure if we were going to have 35 or 10 kids. Once we got over the 10, we were OK. We had sort of a plan together for what we wanted to do. I'm a big spread guy; that's what we ran down there and that's what we had run at VMI for three years."
Gilliland soon learned that his new program doesn't have the personnel to run a pure spread, so the Colonels will open the season with a multiple offense capable of shifting formations to find better matchups. Likely behind center for the Colonels this season will be 6-foot-4, 195-pounder quarterback Richard Lewis, who enrolled at MMA last spring and played on the lacrosse team. Although he didn't play football last year, Gilliland still counts Lewis among his scant returnees from last year's squad -- one of four.
"He's a long, lanky type guy," Gilliland said. "He delivers the ball well. He's been coached before and he's mature. He's going into his senior season, so he's not a new guy to football."
MMA junior two-way starting lineman Cole Spillars, another of the holdovers, describes Gilliland's coaching style as "positive motivation."
"They all have a different way of coaching," Spillars said. "I think coach Burnett's more of a hard-core coach than our head coach, who will come in and talk positively to us. It's a good balance."
That's just what Gilliland had in mind when he took the job. And while Gilliland believes in the upbeat approach, he recognizes Burnett's demanding style will be invaluable in shaping a roster he hopes will reach 30 players within the next couple weeks.
"He's not going to coach any differently. He's going to be the same guy," Gilliland said of Burnett. "Now, he may make his defenses a little bit easier to understand, he may cut out some of the things we had at VMI, but he's not going to change the way he coaches.
"He's still going to expect 100 percent out of you on every play. If you make a mistake, he's going to yell and he's going to get loud but that doesn't mean he hates you. It's more along of the lines he's trying to get your attention, to say this is the right way to do things."