NORTH JACKSON - Jackson-Milton football coach Mark Assion knows his son, Mike, has some big shoes to fill.
The senior is moving from the slot receiver position, where he caught 47 balls and scored two touchdowns last season, to quarterback.
Jackson-Milton's starting quarterback, Jeremy Fitzpatrick, graduated last year and replacing him will be one tall order. Fitzpatrick threw for 2,270 yards with 20 touchdowns and just four interceptions last season.
"There's no way you can replace Jeremy Fitzpatrick in a year," Mike said. "He was an amazing player and leader on and off the field. I'm going to try the best I can and lead this team the same way."
Mike has gotten a few snaps as quarterback in the past, but taking on the starting quarterback role and calling the shots in the huddle will be his biggest test yet, and Mark is confident that his son is ready to tackle his new challenges head-on.
"My expectations for him are probably a lot higher than they are for a lot of the other kids, simply because he's my son," Mark said.
The transition from wide receiver to quarterback might appear harrowing to some, but the swap doesn't seem to scare Mike. He learned all the offensive plays last year, so memorizing the playbook has become second nature to him.
With the playbook mastered, Mike just has to take his reps, learn the quarterback reads and familiarize himself with the elevated tempo and timing of the game.
"The coaching staff has done a great job trying to ease me - well, not ease me, but push me into this process," Mike said.
The good thing is that Mike doesn't have to take his cuts alone this season. In order for Mike to have success in his new role, he will to have to trust and connect with the experienced offensive line in front of him. Jackson-Milton returns four out of its five starting linemen from last season, and ironically, center Tom Phillips is Mike's best friend. Since Mike will call the snaps from Phillips, he will make the perfect ally this season.
"This group's been playing since fifth, sixth grade peewees - we've known each other that long," Mike said. "We've all been buddies, and this is the first year we haven't had a fight yet."
Knock on wood. Locker room scuffles aside, though, Mike and Phillips have been playing football together since they were 8- years old, so they will have no problem staying on the same page Friday nights.
"Once you form that type of bond, things build from there, but I think that O-line in general is really going to help (Mike) because once he starts to see how things develop and he gets more time behind them, in turn I think they're going to want to do more for him, too," Mark said.
Mark said last season a lot of relationships on the team seemed forced by the coaching staff, but this season is different. Collectively, the team is closer than last year's squad. As the quarterback, Mike hopes to continue to unify the team into a close band of brothers.
"We had some prima donnas, and we don't have that now," Mark said. "This is about the best 'team' in terms of relationship that I've had since I've been here. Maybe a lot of that comes from my own personal relationship with my son, and they know that we love each other and I have no problem telling my team that I love them."
Mike's teammates will follow his leadership and steer him in the right direction this season, but his biggest supporter is obviously none other than his dad and coach.
"He's always helped me be a better football player, being a better athlete," Mike said. "Yeah it's a little tougher, but it's good at the end of the road. He's really prepared me for this year, been waiting two years for the chance."
Mark assures that Mike will be taking the snaps for Jackson-Milton this fall not because "his daddy is coach," but because he worked hard, paid his dues and earned his role just like everybody else.
"My coaching staff has done a good job delineating the depth chart, and my boy has earned the right to play, and right now these kids are following him and his leadership. I couldn't be prouder," Mark said.
Assuming the role as quarterback, Mike has already emerged as a senior leader, and his men are prepared to follow his lead.