OAKWOOD — William Harrell knows a thing or two about lifting up a mediocre program.
Harrell, a 2002 Mays graduate, turned around a Hephzibah program the past five seasons, compiling a 22-29 record as head coach. But since the 2017 season, Harrell led the Rebels to their best three-year stretch in program history, going 19-12 with two playoff appearances the past two seasons. They had just four playoff appearances in their history until 2018.
“The biggest thing was that after the second year I had to change the entire coaching staff,” he said Monday during a phone interview. “They were good coaches but I just felt like that’s what was needed to move the program forward. I had all community coaches but one guy after that. It was hard getting guys hired (in Richmond County) so I felt that was a great option for us.”
So what does that have to do with anything in the northeast Georgia foothills? Harrell was recently hired to take over the Johnson football program, which is similar to the Rebels with limited success over the past 15 seasons, including no playoff appearances since 2004.
Harrell takes over a Knights program that is on the rise after back-to-back 4-6 campaigns, the last in 2019 under Stan Luttrell, who stepped down to take over at Hebron Christian. The eight wins the past two seasons are more than the Knights’ had in their previous five seasons (6) combined.
“Very similar to what I inherited at Hephzibah in terms of overall success but it’s a much better situation than what I started with down there,” Harrell said. “Coach (Stan) Luttrell did a great job last year really moving things forward. I’ve seen a lot of film on them and they really weren’t that far from making the playoffs.”
In fact, the Knights were one goal-line stand against Cedar Shoals in a 26-21 loss from getting that elusive playoff spot.
“I definitely feel there is a chance for a continued upward trend at Johnson,” he said. “The sophomore group is really going to be good so if we can get the juniors and seniors to keep progressing there’s a real chance to put something together. I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Harrell was looking to get closer to his Atlanta roots and feels like the Knights give him that chance.
“I didn’t want to just take any job,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in the middle of Atlanta but close enough that I could be closer to my family. I really think (the Gainesville area) is a great place to be and this is the right job for me.”
The Knights were a power-run oriented team in 2019. Look for a few changes under Harrell.
“We’re going to be a direct-snap team. Whether we’ll run more or throw more will depend on who we have running the offense,” he said. “But regardless of personnel, it’s a proven system. From what I’ve seen (on film) we have plenty to work with.
“I like a physical defense. At Hephzibah, we ran even fronts but I think we’ll probably run more odd-man fronts (at Johnson) just because of the numbers. But these kids saw a lot of progress as a group last year and we’re wanting to keep that going.”
Like most of us, Harrell is also just hoping to get the chance to get out on the field in 2020.
“This is a crazy time but hopefully everything will get back to normal by the summer,” he said. “I was hoping to move up there next month but I guess we’ll have to see how all this works out. But I am so ready to get up there and get going.”