The last time Cole Northrup and Jahquise Russell were not starters for St. Augustine’s football team, Joey Wiles was the head coach, the New York Giants were defending Super Bowl champs and Barack Obama was president — still serving his first term.
The Yellow Jackets hope their transition to a new starting quarterback and tailback goes as smoothly as last year’s transition to a new coach. Wiles won 198 games and a state title in 20 seasons before giving way to his former player and defensive coordinator, Brian Braddock.
Braddock led the Jackets to the Class 6A regional finals and an 11-2 record in 2016. He had the advantage of installing a new offensive system around two fourth-year starters. Now, Russell, who bulldozed his way to more than 3,600 rushing yards in four seasons, and Northrup, who is one of three St. Johns County quarterbacks to throw for 7,000 yards, have moved on to college.
Their presence will be missed, but Braddock is excited about what’s next at the two positions that touch the ball the most for the Jackets.
“There is no replacing Cole Northrup,” Braddock said. “His leadership and maturity were special in addition to being very talented. But we’re excited about Austin Reed, and he has high expectations for himself.”
Reed, a senior, sat behind Northrup for two seasons. During that time, he has grown in every way.
“I was hanging out with Cole and he said, ‘Look you’ve grown over the summer,’ Reed said. “Last year he had me by about an inch. Now I have him by like two inches. I’m like 6-2, maybe 6-3-ish. My freshman year I was 5-5, my sophomore year 5-9. I’ve grown a decent amount.”
On the field Reed’s growth was evident last season when he replaced an injured Northrup at Melbourne and on his first snap threw a post to Karim Brown that went for a 45-yard touchdown. Reed’s growth was palpable in the spring game against Bishop Kenny when he recovered from an early interception to complete 12 passes in a row and finish with 178 yards passing and a touchdown in one half of action.
“He’s exceptionally talented and very confident, so you would never know he is new to the starting role,” Braddock said. “He doesn’t act that way. He’s the leader of the offense. That’s the kind of kid he is. Cole was like a coach on the field, whereas Austin may take a few more risks; he’s a little more freewheeling, and that’s OK. As a coach, both of those are big strengths that you have to pull out of the kid.”
Reed, like Northrup before him, always wanted to play quarterback for the Yellow Jackets. And that’s why he was willing to wait his turn.
“I’ve been waiting in the wings ready to play,” he said. “Transferring was never an option. I was just going to wait my turn and when it came time I was going to play.”
As for replacing Russell, the Yellow Jackets plan to fill the tailback spot by committee. But unlike some committees, the members on this one complement each other perfectly.
Junior Brandon Johnson, who rushed for more than 500 yards last year filling in for Russell, is a 5-8, 160-pound slasher, who’s effective catching the ball out of the backfield and has a thorough knowledge of the offense. St. Joseph transfer Fre’quan Sparrow, at 5-7, 180, runs low to the ground and packs quite a punch. And Tampa Plant transfer Dexter Brown is the speedster, the fastest player on the team, who has been timed in the high 4.3’s in the 40-yard dash.
“Brandon brings vision and agility to the table,” Dexter Brown said. “Fre’Quan brings power, down and dirty. He’s really strong. And I’m more of a speed, quick kind of a guy. When you have three people who can all play and all have different styles, it’s hard to stop that.”
Still, replacing a workhorse like Russell won’t be easy.
“Jahq had the whole package,” Johnson said. “He had everything.”
Said offensive lineman Darrell Farrell, “I think, always in the back of our minds we’ll be thinking, where’s Jahq. But I think we have some good running backs and we’ll do fine.”
With all three sharing the load, Braddock does not envision a drop-off in the running game.
“They’re all going to get a lot of opportunities, because we’re going to run the ball and be physical,” Braddock said.
But the Jackets also have an ace in the hole in receiver Karim Brown, a rare athlete who owns the school record in the long jump and, like his quarterback, seems poised to have a breakout season as a senior.
“We have a joke at St. Augustine,” Reed said. “You can’t overthrow Karim. Throw the ball 70 yards and he’ll find a way to get under it. He’s improved with the mental part of it. He’s trying to be a leader. He’s a freak athlete, and he’s going to make plays.”
The Jackets are deep at receiver and have a strong-armed quarterback who can deliver the ball.
“I think our strength will be passing this year,” Reed said. “Last year we built the pass game off the running game. I think this year we’ll be building the running game off the passing game. I think we can make a deep run in the playoffs. I’m ready to finally start. We have guys who are ready to step up, guys who have been with us since their sophomore and junior year. I think we have a really good team who could do special things.”