ROWLAND — Clay Jernigan likes a challenge.
He knows he’s in for one at South Robeson whose football program has few resources and at school year’s end will be short 16 starters off a team that reached the third round of the state 1A playoffs last season.
“It wouldn’t be coaching if you didn’t have any pressure,” Jernigan said Tuesday after being approved by the Public Schools of Robeson County to become the Mustangs’ next football coach. “Stephen (Roberson) gave them a taste of winning and I hope we can build on that. A lot of teams last year didn’t make the third round. To me, that shows they’ve got fight and work ethic in them and know how to win.”
Roberson resigned in February to pursue an opening at Westover, leaving behind the most success South Robeson’s seen since Mike Brill strung together six double-digit win campaigns in Rowland over a seven-year span in the 1990s.
Jernigan, a current Lumberton assistant who has spent time at several area schools, says he’ll use some of the same principles from the past with next year’s group.
His philosophy mirrors Brill’s ‘run first, pass second’ mentality.
“You can go back however far you need to go back, but football’s still about blocking and tackling,” Jernigan said. “I was looking at South Robeson’s records and its best teams ran (the Wing-T). If we’ve got a Fran Tarkenton back there I guess we’ll throw it, but some things shouldn’t change.
“I don’t like anything too fancy. I’m a smashmouth kind of (football) coach.”
With several other enticing — bigger — jobs open in the region including South Columbus and Hoke County, Jernigan’s top choice was South Robeson from the jump. The Mustangs were a main rival of Red Springs during Jernigan’s stint as the Red Devils’ head coach in 2006 and 2007.
“It’s a small school, similar in size to where I grew up in Tabor City,” he said. “We had like 450 to 500 students. South Robeson reminds me of that little school out in the country.”
Lumberton wished Jernigan well on Monday, delivering a football from the team as a sign of gratitude. Several players posted their thoughts on social media following his departure including graduating senior defensive back Eric Singletary.
“Dang dude I’ma miss Coach Jernigan. He’s been there all of my four years in high school. Great person on and off the field. Much Love,” Singletary tweeted.
Jernigan’s worked on Lumberton’s staff the last several seasons as the offensive line coach and helped the Pirates adjust to zone blocking and slide protection in the Air Raid last fall after many years in a run-based scheme.
“It was sort of bitter-sweet because the (Lumberton) kids are tickled to death for me but didn’t want me to leave,” Jernigan said. “It’s hard on them, but they’ll bounce back.”
Focused on the run behind all-county backs Andrew Hill and Juan Ellerbe, South Robeson utilized a downhill game plan last season under Roberson and erupted for the most rushing yards in the area, averaging more than 300 yards per game.
The parts will be different, but keeping the ball out of the opposition’s hands will be the same mindset this season. Ball control will help cover up some of the inevitable mistakes on an inexperienced defense.
“None of us have had a chance to meet coach Jernigan yet, but we’re looking forward to getting back out there on the field,” said Corbin Hunt, a rising senior all-conference lineman. “I think everyone’s ready for football again.”
Hunt’s one of three returning starters up front expected to generate some operating room for two-year quarterback Kalvis Chavis.
Jernigan’s formal introduction in Rowland should happen by the end of the week.
That’s when the work begins.
“I know we’ll be behind the eight ball with a new head coach this late in the spring, but I’m very excited and eager to get over there,” Jernigan said. “I’ve got to meet with the staff and see what we have and don’t have returning. Then, we can start planning a spring workout.”
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.