HARRODSBURG — Chris Pardue is having to play catchup in his return the high school sidelines.
Pardue was hired away from Campbellsville University by Mercer County in mid-May, which meant he missed winter workouts and spring practice. He’s also Mercer’s fourth head coach in five years.
But Pardue likes what he has to work with at Mercer, which went 5-7 and upset Rusell County in the first round of the Class AAAA payoffs under Paul Rains.
“They’ve been dealt a bad hand the last few years, not of their fault, not anybody’s fault, but going through three different coaching styles in three years is not easy for anybody to handle,” Pardue said. “I think they’re doing a god job picking things up and starting to understand me.
“And being a late hire, the way things worked out, I’m just getting to know a lot about the kids and the coaches right now.”
Pardue spent three seasons as Boyle County’s head coach, then spent the past four years as Campbellsville’s offensive coordinator. The lure of the high school game was too much for Pardue, and when the Mercer job opened up he jumped at it and a chance to get back closer to home.
“I loved when I was at Campbellsville. It was a great place to be and I wouldn’t have left for any other situation except for this one. It was just one of those things that worked out the way it did. And one thing I missed at Campbellsville, I missed Friday night. I love the Friday nights,” he said.
“My happiest weeks at Campbellsville, once or twice a year we played on Thursday night and I enjoyed those more than the Saturday games.”
Pardue said being hired so late makes for hectic time getting everything in place.
“It puts us behind more in my mind than anything else. I’m always thinking we should be at this point right now, so I have to remind myself and remind my coaches we are in a transition right now and we’re all learning,” he said. “I’m learning, the coaches are learning, so what we’ve got to do to make up for that is we won’t be real complicated, which we never have been. So we have to focus on the techniques and doing the little things right and just playing as hard as we possibly can.”
And little has changed with Pardue’s system. Those familiar with Boyle’s five straight state title teams from 1999-2033 will see the Titans run the exact same offense.
“We may change one little piece of terminology, but it’s exactly the same,” he said. “Our philosophy on both sides of the ball is to attack and be fundamentally sound and play with our heart.”
Leading that offense is returning junior quarterback J.T. Long, who has impressed Pardue.
“He’s getting the ball where it needs to be most of the time,” he said. “We’ve got to work on the quickness of his release because our offense is a quick-release offense.”
James Johnson returns at running back, and Pardue said he has to “stay healthy” since he will also be playing linebacker. Ashton Jones and Kobe Ford will back him up.
Pardue was high on his receivers. Jordan Ellery, Darion Lewis and Lane Peavler are slotted in at first team, with Dylan Logue, Jacob¿Catlett, Connor Bird and Nick Brown backing them up.
“We’ve got a great receiving corps,” he said. “That first group is going to get a lot of reps, but I wouldn’t hesitate to put any of them in.”
Austin Coleman, A.K. Gibson, Tommy Craig, G.W. Anderson and Curry Brown are slotted in on the line, along with Cameron Bryant, and Pardue said there are capable backups. Most of the players will also play defense.
Pardue said few players will play one side of the ball.
“We’re not going to be a one-way playing team,” he said. “And I understand that the second team, once the first team gets tired, can be just as effective. I’d say we have 20-25 kids that we would consider varsity kids that are going to see most of the playing time.”
Mac Guay is one of the returning linebackers, and Russell Sims also returns at safety. Lewis and Ellery are also back in the secondary.
Pardue said the Titans got a good boost after their win over Russell County in the playoffs, and hopes that momentum can carry over into this season. On film and in person, he saw a different Mercer team from the beginning of the season to the end of it.
“I think in scouting and recruiting I watched the Mercer County-Collins game the first game of the year, and I saw the Boyle County game,” he said. “Then I saw a couple of later games, and the team got better all year long. So if we could start out close to where they finished last year and keep making improvements like they did last year, I think we could get after some people by playoff time.
“What set them back this year is a new system. They’re still doing a lot of thinking and so their reactions are not as quick, but it’s getting better every day. We’re nowhere close to where we need to be yet, but if we keep making improvements, I feel good.”
Pardue said the challenge of getting a team ready is fun for him.
“All of coaching football is fun. I get paid for a hobby basically. It gets a little frustrating every once in a while because I left a team at Campbellsville that’s going to be very good this year, and it took two three years for them to learn and completely understand it and get it. And that’s where we’re at with these guys too. But they’re coming along” he said.
“We’re going to be basic the first few games. But if we learn to attack people and be fundamentally sound and play from the heart, we’ll be fine.”
Mercer County at a glance
Coach: Chris Pardue (first year)
Class and district: AAAA-5
2011 results: 5-7, lost to Lexington Catholic in second round of Class AAAA playoffs
Aug. 25 x-Allen County-Scottsville 5:30
Aug. 31 at Madison Central 7:30
Sept. 7 WEST JESSAMINE 7:30
Sept. 14 ANDERSON COUNTY 7:30
Sept. 21 LEXINGTON CATHOLIC 7:30
Sept. 28 NELSON COUNTY 7:30
Oct. 5 at Marion County 7:30
Oct. 12 TAYLOR COUNTY 7:30
Oct. 19 at Boyle County 7:30
Oct. 26 at Paul Dunbar 7:30
x-at Boyle County
Top Returning Players
James Johnson, Sr., RB-LB
G.W. Anderson, Sr., OL-LB
Jordan Ellery, Sr. WR-DB
Darion Lewis, Sr. WR-DB
Austin Coleman, Sr., OL-DL
Dylan Logue, Sr. WR-LB
Cameron Bryant, Sr. OL-DL
J.T. Long, Jr. QB
Russell Sims, Jr., WR-DB
Tommy Craig, Jr. OL-DL
A.K. Gibson, Jr., OL-DL
Has Changed: The biggest change starts at the top, where former Boyle County coach Chris Pardue takes over after serving as offensive coordinator at Campbellsville University the last four years. He becomes Mercer’s fourth head coach the past five seasons, which he admits has made it hard for players to get comfortable when everything is new each season.
Needs to Change: Mercer needs consistency at the top, and may have found it in the veteran Pardue. He has state championship and college experience and has had high-powered offenses wherever he has been. But Mercer needs to have his system in place for several years so younger players can learn it and master it so coaches are not re-teaching the basics every year.
Emerging player: Pardue said junior quarterback J.T. Long is coming on as a team leader and playmaker. “I think he matured during baseball season. He’s a gamer. I hear him coming off the field, and then at McDonald’s the other night after a passing league game, and I hear him talking to his receivers about what a good job they did in the passing scrimmage. That’s good to have in your quarterback,” Pardue said. “He has picked up the offense much quicker than I thought he would. Although they threw a bunch last year, and that was their system, the reads are a little different. What he got out of last year was a good understanding of how to read defenses, and all that’s a fundamental part of football.”
Underrated player: Senior Jordan Ellery is expected to make plays on both sides of the ball for the Titans.
“Jordan can be one of the keys for us. That’s why we put him at strong safety,”¿Pardue said. “He’ll probably be a better (free safety or cornerback), but we can get him more involved at safety. He has been a great, quiet leader us at receiver and safety.”
Outlook: It’s hard to say how good Mercer can be this year when the Titans are constantly learning a new system. They gradually got better last year under Paul Rains, which included a playoff win. If some of that can carry over to this year, Mercer has the potential to give teams trouble. The key is going to be how quick everything can come together. The pieces are in place for a good team with veterans at about every spot.