While No. 4 Gulf Shores’ Friday meeting with the top-ranked team in 5A – the UMS-Wright Prep Bulldogs – is undoubtedly a big one, head coach Mark Hudspeth says it’s the …
While No. 4 Gulf Shores’ Friday meeting with the top-ranked team in 5A – the UMS-Wright Prep Bulldogs – is undoubtedly a big one, head coach Mark Hudspeth says it’s the biggest one because it’s the next one up.
“This is a big game, but most importantly it’s a big game because it’s the next game,” Hudspeth said. “The preparation and our routine are exactly the same if we’re playing the No. 1 team in the state or if we’re playing a team that hasn’t won a game. Our preparation is going to be consistent.”
That consistency has produced the school’s first 3-0 start to a season and has had the Dolphins in the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s rankings all season, another first for the program.
“Obviously it’s all relative to the work we’ve put in because I think we have to put in the work to be a top-25 program in the state of Alabama, No. 4 in 5A, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Hudspeth said.
The athletes themselves are seeing the fruits of their labor as well, where both quarterback Brendon Byrd and three-way starter JR Gardner both felt more confident heading into Week 4 compared to Week 1.
“I do (feel more comfortable in the offense), we’re just trying to build our team chemistry and work together,” Byrd said Thursday afternoon before practice. “We’re just trying to get better every day, keep working and trying to stack things up.”
“I’m feeling a lot better than I was in the beginning of the season, I had a couple of bad games but really studying UMS, it’s not really a difficult scheme,” Gardner said.
Hudspeth agrees both have made strides but remain big contributors to the team.
“When the field has been a fast track, (Byrd) can throw it very effectively and when he couldn’t throw it last week because of the mud, he ran for 137 yards. So, now we’re able to do both and that’s a big plus,” Hudspeth said. “(Gardner is) playing both ways and on kick return, he’s doing a lot. He almost had 100 yards rushing last week, finished with 97, the guy is a mainstay for us; he’s one of our bell cows.”
That bell cow said the team’s confidence has similarly been building through the early stages of the regular season and will lead Gulf Shores into Friday.
“I feel a little bit anxious but I feel like they’re not the same powerhouse they used to be and we’ve grown a lot as a team but it’s still going to be a great matchup great to watch,” Gardner said.
Gardner is just one part of the Dolphins' three-headed offensive monster with Byrd and Rivals' No. 1 all-purpose back in the nation for the Class of 2024, Ronnie Royal.
“I feel very comfortable with them next to me, if I’m not doing something on the play I know they’ve got my back,” Byrd said.
“It’s definitely taken a load off of me having another a strong runner in the backfield,” Gardner said. “Having a quarterback as versatile as (Byrd) is, no one can expect if he’s running or throwing.”
That quarterback play has also been a key to some of Gulf Shores’ early success in Gardner’s eyes.
“I’ve seen a lot more accuracy at the quarterback position, a lot more power,” Gardner said. “No one is really used to having a left-handed quarterback so it was a new adjustment for all of us.”
Both of the athletes said the Dolphin coaching staff has been harping on the team to lock in and focus on the task at hand.
“Mainly telling us to stay focused, build upon the days and lock in in the locker room, on the field, in the classroom; any time we get a chance to,” Gardner said.
“Just come in focused and prepared every day and keep working. If we do our job then we’ll win the game,” Byrd said.