FAIRMONT — When Mark Heil arrived at Fairmont High School in June to take over the football program, his goal was to change the culture.
After just two months of preparation, the progress is starting to show.
“They’re getting to understand me and my philosophy,” Heil said. “They’re understanding discipline. There are a lot of good teams out there, but the teams that have great discipline when things don’t go well, that’s the difference between a good team and a great one.”
After resigning from Purnell Swett in December, Heil was set to become the defensive coordinator at St. Pauls, but the Fairmont job opened up when Randy Ragland bolted for Middle Creek after two seasons with the Golden Tornadoes.
Heil arrived with less than two months to prepare for the team’s opener at Westover on Aug. 21.
The goal was simple — get tougher.
“I don’t think they’ve been mentally tough,” Heil said.
“We were not very physical last year, we’re working on that. We’re tackling, we’re thudding all the time. That’s Tornado football, being physical. I want to do that.
“In the last two months, they’re getting tougher mentally and physically. If that can continue, we’re blessed with some pretty good athletes, and good athletes make coaches look good.”
DeAngelo McMillan, a 6-foot-4 245-pound senior, is helping Heil change the perception with his aggressive play and leadership on defense.
“I try to be really vocal being a leader out there,” said McMillan, who missed last season due to a knee injury.
“I’m aggressive, I’m intense, very aware out there. Defensively, we have to be more devoted.”
For McMillan, it’s a simple philosophy.
“We want to be physical,” he said. “It’s a physical game, man. I love it.”
Heil said several players have stepped up to help the Tornadoes stay on track this season.
“DeAngelo has made a huge difference,” the coach said.
“Austin Cummings, Keith (McDaniel) is tough as nails. Jiquiese Campbell, Michael Sealey, Jeremiah Jones, Ishmael McNair — a lot of these seniors are stepping up. These guys are wanting to hit people. They’re buying in.”
Heil inherits a Fairmont program that returns a core of players from a team that went 6-6 last season, including quarterback Julius Caulder, who was named the county Heisman after passing for 3,257 yards and 32 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Caulder loses two of his best receivers in Shyheim Hines and Shakeim Lambert, but he’s confident in this year’s group.
“I’ve got a big-time receiver in Jarique Moore and Issac (Howard) is even better than he was last year,” Caulder said.
“I’ve got (Alshaquan Williams) in the red zone, Jiquiese (Campbell) is fast. They’re pretty good.”
Moore, a junior, enters his first season as a varsity player, but is expected to have a huge impact with his athleticism.
“I’m looking forward to being a go-to guy on this team,” Moore said.
“I know it’s a lot of work so I’ve got to keep working hard. We’ve got a lot of athletes and great kids.”
Fairmont is also expected to run the ball a little more this season. With McDaniel — an all-conference running back — returning, the Golden Tornadoes have the means to do just that.
“The more you have the ball, the less (the other team) does,” Heil said.
That’s fine with McDaniel.
“We’ve got more players, so we want to accomplish more of our goals this year,” McDaniel said.
“We want to be aggressive, getting after it. Letting (teams) know that we are Fairmont.”
Heil isn’t worried about the skill positions, he’s more concerned with the depth up front and his defense.
“We talk about it constantly, points are going to come,” he said.
“Playing great defense has got to be worked on. But priority one is getting our line straight. We’ve got to be physical, we’ve got to find some depth.”
As the new-look Tornadoes prepare for the season, including an early visit to Whiteville — the defending champions of the Three Rivers Conference — Heil is hopeful his team is three things: well-disciplined, well-coached and physical.
“We want to be just a good, solid football team,” Heil said.
“We’re going to go out and take care of business. Just a machine-type mentality. Discipline makes the difference between the good and the great teams. That’s what I’m hoping we can get to.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.