NEW TAMPA — To help turn around last year’s 4-6 record, which included five straight losses, Freedom brought in James Harrell as the new coach.
Harrell, who spent nine seasons as a National Football League linebacker, had never coached a high school team, but was Plant’s defensive coordinator for four seasons. The Panthers were 38-4 in that span, including Class 4A state titles in 2006 and 2008.
“It was kind of hard to leave a school that you helped turn into a contender, but head coaching jobs don’t come around every year,” Harrell said. “I figured we won two titles, so maybe it was time for me to start my head coaching career.”
Harrell grew up in Tampa and played mostly linebacker for Chamberlain and the University of Florida. Then came his NFL career, eight with the Detroit Lions and one with the Kansas City Chiefs. In all, Harrell played in 89 games, starting 32, from 1979 to 1987.
That time spent playing and coaching defense shaped Harrell’s approach to football.
“If you can stop the other team from scoring your team has a better chance of winning,” he said. “It’s not that hard to figure out, but you also need to establish the run and be real physical. So the real key is to be physical on both sides of the ball.”
Harrell was not the only member of his family to come to Freedom from Plant this year. His son Anthony is a linebacker like his father was, but he also plays fullback and tight end. A junior, he has the advantage of playing in his father’s defense for the past two years.
“It gives me an advantage,” Anthony said. “I already understand his defense, because I am always with him. I really know what he wants me to do without him even asking.”
But there is a price to pay for being the coach’s son.
“The other guys when they go home don’t have their coach always looking at them,” the younger Harrell said. “He is always trying to push me to work harder. He’ll say ‘get up, go work out, why aren’t you studying’ and things like that, instead of me just sitting around.”
That pushing seems to be helping Anthony, who had 44 tackles and five sacks for the Panthers last season. Through two games this year, he had a team-best 21 tackles with a sack and fumble recovery as well.
It has not been all smiles for the father, either.
“First, when you coach your son it’s really difficult because your level of expectation is so high for him that it is more than he expects of himself,” Harrell said. “But you just try and teach him the fundamentals and teach him the importance of studying game film. I try and do that with all the kids, and play through them because I can’t take any more snaps.”
Another Freedom defensive standout is senior safety T.J. Mutcherson, who had 10 tackles through two games. Mutcherson also led the team with 204 receiving yards and 33 return yards.
“He has brought a lot of discipline to the team,” Mutcherson said of Harrell. “He also is a really good motivator and gets a lot out of us on every drill and play.”
Learning from an NFL veteran, Mutcherson said, is “a great experience. We know that what he tells us to do will really work because of that, and we have seen our defense get better. We are all flying around to the ball and making people pay for every yard they get.”
Mutcherson also praised quarterback Tyler Guy, a senior transfer from Zephyrhills. Guy is new to Freedom’s spread offense, but had for 432 yards and five touchdowns.
The Patriots got off to a 2-1 start, but will have to be better at home to make the playoffs. Freedom, which had not won at home since a 2007 game against Middleton, snapped that skid with a 30-12 home win over Gaither on Sept. 25.
“We knew we had to get that first home win to get our fans excited,” Anthony said. “We need the crowd support, but we needed to give them a reason to come out and cheer.”