COMMERCE — Despite a 1-2 start to his inaugural season as the new Commerce coach, Mark Hollars did not panic.
Instead, he did something that probably made most of the small Jackson County football community gasp in horror.
“We made some changes on offense,” Hollars said. “We looked at the team and decided we needed to tweak some things to give these kids their best chance to win. I’m sure it had some people talking.”
For the Commerce football community, it was no small change, however. And the rumors of phone switchboards lighting up in eastern Jackson County cannot be denied.
After more than two decades solid of running what has now become known as the “Commerce triple-option,” Hollars and his staff switched to an even more power-based I-formation offense, complete with historical reference.
It doesn’t seem like much, unless you’re a die-hard Commerce fan. But for the Tigers, it jump-started a season that now has them one win from a second consecutive Region 8-A title.
“I’m a triple guy. I love the option. I’ve run it everywhere I’ve been. And this is Commerce and it’s what this program has run for a long, long time with a lot of success,” Hollars said. “But this team was a group that lost a lot of its key offensive starters from last year. We had a lot of talent but I don’t think it was perfectly suited for the triple-option.
“People may or may not remember but Coach (Steve) Savage ran the I-formation way back when. My job is to help the kids use their talents to be successful.”
The changes definitely seem to work as the Tigers reeled off four straight wins. And part of the changes was inserting freshman Jaiden Daniels into the starting tailback role. Daniels popped for more than 200 yards in his first-ever start against Mount Paran and has since amassed 1,267 yards and 12 touchdowns in just six games.
The Tigers have gone 5-1 since the switch. But their goal of repeating as region champs for the first time since 1999-2000 seemed crushed with a stunning 28-19 loss to Social Circle two weeks ago. And they were looking at finishing contests against No. 8 Washington-Wilkes and perennial power Lincoln County on the road.
Suddenly, not making the playoffs for the first time since 1996 was a possibility.
Hollars said the main thing at the beginning of the season was trust.
“When there’s change like we had with new coaches, new personnel, and just getting to know each other as coaches and players, trust and relationships take time to build,” he said. “We went through a lot of that early in the season. But we talked to the kids about that from the moment we got here. They understood.
“Sitting at 1-2, we knew we were going to have to rescue ourselves. That’s where the trust comes in. The kids took to the changes we were making and stayed the course as a group.
“Jaiden has played in every game, mostly on defense in the beginning, and he was getting in a few plays on offense. But you don’t turn a freshman loose at this level until you feel they can handle it. He showed some flashes and we felt by the fourth game he was ready to go.
“Again, we looked at what avenue would help these kids have success. I think we’ve found that. It’s been fun to watch.”
Daniels and the offense put the disappointment of the Social Circle loss behind them and went back to work against Washington-Wilkes last week. They led from start-to-finish in a 31-20 win that now has the Tigers (6-3, 3-1 Region 8-A Public) holding the fate of a region title in their grasp. Beat Lincoln County (6-3, 3-1 Region 8-A Public) and they’ll snatch what looked unattainable two weeks ago from the jaws of defeat.
Interestingly enough, the Red Devils now feature former Commerce quarterback Trey Huff, who is having an outstanding year running the Lincoln County wing-T offense.
“Back-to-back titles would be special, especially for this group and how things started,” Hollars said. “Lincoln County is a very good team. Trey is a tremendous player, just like he was here the last couple of years. He makes that offense go and our defense will have to tackle well.”
But the key will most certainly be the Commerce offense. While they have piled up huge rushing numbers behind Daniels, senior running back Dreylan Marin (685 yards, 7 TD), Malachi Shockey (345 yards, 2 TD) and quarterback Trey Garnto (286 passing, 187 rushing), turnovers and penalties have been their undoing.
Two huge turnovers, including one that turned into a defensive score, and 10 penalties on offense doomed them against the Redskins. They managed just one score despite three trips into the red zone in the first half. Against Washington-Wilkes, they reversed that scoring on their first two drives, had a 22-play drive for a touchdown later in the game, and cut down their mistakes by more than half.
So, which Commerce team will take the field in Lincolnton?
“Well, our defense has played well all season and I think they’ll be ready,” Hollars said. “The wing-T is a difficult defense to defend and we will have to tackle well. On offense, we will need to control the ball like we did last week. Our linemen and the running backs did a tremendous job of blocking and not committing penalties.
“If we play like we did last week, we have a great chance to accomplish our first goal of winning a region title. If we make mistakes like we did the week before against Social Circle, it could be a long night.”
But more than anything, Hollars said they’re just happy to be in this position.
“We’re very excited about this game. We’re playing meaningful football in Week 10 and that’s what you want,” Hollars said. “We always try to be humble but also hungry. Hopefully, the kids can pull this off on Friday.”