COVINGTON, Ga. — Suffice it to say, new Alcovy Tigers football coach, Jason Dukes is happy to be home.
You could tell it as the Augusta area native waxed reminiscent about his time spent as a head coach at Alpharetta High School from 2009 through 2014. He had several solid teams there, including a pair of region championship squads (2011 and 2013).
It made me realize why his name sounded familiar. Dukes coached the two Alpharetta teams that came down to give the Lovejoy Wildcats everything they wanted in 2012 and 2013 — years when I covered the Clayton County sports scene.
I recall him coming down to Twelve Oaks Stadium in Lovejoy back in 2012 with a hot shot senior quarterback named Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs had a tough night that year in a 43-24 loss, but he would go on to a solid collegiate career at Tennessee and is now on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster.
But it was in 2013 when the Raiders lost to Lovejoy by a single point in a game we both remember to be pretty poorly officiated on either side. Dukes chuckled as he recalled becoming upset at a particular call that probably should’ve been an Alpharetta fumble recovery which could’ve swung the game in his favor.
“It was a tight game, especially in the beginning,” he said. “I remember when that happened. The center snapped the ball and the quarterback wasn’t ready for it. One of our guys pounced on it. It should’ve been a fumble, but they called it a false start. I had to call timeout and tell the official that he had to come over and explain that one to me.”
Dukes also had a one-year stint at a pretty moribund Lithia Springs program. The one and only game he won as coach there in 2016 was the first game the team had won since the 2014 season, and was only the third victory for the program in five years.
Dukes now comes to Alcovy after a stint as defensive coordinator at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where the school won a state championship and was state runner up another season, and he's looking to turn around a program that hasn’t won a region game in three seasons.
On Friday I had the privilege of chatting with Dukes, a former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman, Richmond Academy (Augusta) and Georgia Tech standout about his excitement for the chance to come back to Georgia as a head football coach.
STOVALL: What was it about Alcovy that made you decide that this was the place you wanted to come home to?
DUKES: “There’s a couple of things that really interested me. No. 1, I think it’s a school that has a good sized population, and I think it has an administration that is supportive of athletics, and also, I thought it was very interesting that I found a school that’s close to Atlanta metro area but also plays in a region near Augusta.
Now most would look at that and say, ‘Oh my God. We have to drive an hour and a half to get to games on the road. But it’s neat for me because my parents still live in Augusta. I’m from Augusta. I went to Richmond Academy in Augusta. I grew up playing against Evans and Lakeside, and though Grovetown wasn’t a school at the time, I’m familiar with that area and so I’m familiar with the I-20 corridor. All of that was a draw to me.
“But also, I’ve seen and watched from afar some of the athletes that have come out of the area. Some of the success that Newton (High School) has had. I firmly believe that at Alcovy, with the right leadership and right group of coaches, there’s definitely the opportunity to have that kind of success.”
STOVALL: When fans and spectators look at the 2019 version of Alcovy Tigers football, what do you want them to expect to see?
DUKES: “Well, first thing is that we’re going to be a physical football team. I’m a firm believer in that it’ll be very rare to see the less physical team and the team that can’t control the line of scrimmage is the team that won. That usually doesn’t happen. We are going to be a dynamic offense. That doesn’t mean we’re gonna throw the ball every play. That does mean we’ll have the ability to make big plays and use the entire field to do it. That’s from an offensive standpoint.
“From a defensive standpoint, we want to be a physical, attacking football team. We’re going to be gap sound, but also we know we’ll have a better chance to be successful at what we do defensively when the other team’s offense is under pressure.”
STOVALL: I know it’s early, but have you gotten much opportunity to get a glimpse at some of the personnel you’re inheriting? What are your most raw initial impressions?
DUKES: “I’ve been able to see just a little bit. From what I can tell, we’ll be really, really solid from a running back perspective. I’ve seen a few guys back there with some big play potential. And there are others, whose names I’m not familiar with yet, but I’ll get to know those guys soon.”
STOVALL: You can’t really recruit in high school, so what you get is what you get. That said, how does that affect the way you approach the game and situate your guys into best positions to make plays?
DUKES: “Well, I think what you said is kinda correct. You can recruit in high school. You have to recruit your own school’s hallways. There may be two or three kids walking the halls that can help us and help our program win football games right away. I’m a firm believer in multi-sport athletes. There’s not been one basketball player I’ve seen that can’t play the game of football too. That’s one thing I will explore. But recruiting your hallways is something that’s very important in the early stages of developing a program after taking over.
“As far as the offensive and defensive schemes, you have to curtail those to the talent you have. You have to put your teams in the position to be successful. That’s going to be a point of emphasis for us. I want to take the time to do proper evaluations on our kids and put them in the right places.”
STOVALL: It’s been a while since Alcovy’s been a consistent winner. Most notably, the school’s on a 19-game region losing streak. What goes into changing that culture, especially when you’re a guy just coming in the door?
DUKES: “The first thing is we have to change our expectations. And to change the mindset of our kids, the first thing they need to understand is that the work they put in during the offseason is invaluable. When you step foot on the football field in the fall, you have to have done what it takes to prepare yourself, your bodies and minds to win. Then you have to have an expectation to win. And then from a coaching standpoint, we have to make sure there’s never a situation where our kids aren’t successful in a game because they aren’t prepared. That means doing our work as coaches.
"And really that means us becoming a program that’s fundamentally sound from top to bottom. There are some things when I watched a bit of film where, you know, you can tell there’s a lot of effort there, but there were some things I saw that showed me that the program was not fundamentally sound. And when you’re not fundamentally sound, things happen.
"Like when you get a kickoff returned on you (for a touchdown). When a kickoff return happens, that means the team that it happens to — it speaks to them being fundamentally unsound. And if you’re going to win consistently, you have to be fundamentally sound in every aspect of the game. Offense, defense and special teams.”
STOVALL: I’m sure you’ve found out through the interviewing process that Alcovy is nestled in a smaller, closely knit community where everybody sort of knows everybody. How excited are you to get yourself and your program more immersed in it?
DUKES: “Absolutely. And I’m extremely excited about that. As a football coach, you want to go to a community where the school is the cornerstone and football is what happens on Friday nights in the fall. Part of that, and part of getting community support is putting a product on the field that you can be proud of. I think once we start doing that, the community will appreciate it and respond by showing up for our kids.”
STOVALL: You’ve got the NFL background with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Is that something you can use to help you relate to your players?
DUKES: “Well, it’s not just the NFL, but the college background too. Sometimes when I’m teaching my classes, and I start talking about my days in high school and college, kids look at me like a dinosaur. But really, I, not too long ago, have been in their position. I’ve been the high school athlete trying to find my way, wanting to continue to play the game. I was ortunate to be blessed with the opportunity to continue my football career at Georgia Tech and get a meaningful education in the process.
“I also know that that is the desire of a large percentage of players who will suit up for Alcovy. And I want them to know that every situation and every desire they have as far as what they want out of their high school football career is something to where I was there and I understand what they want.
“From that perspective, I want them to feel like they have every opportunity to reach whatever goal they have for themselves personally right here, and that there is a place for a person who wants to work and make a team better. Same for the individual goals for themselves that they want to accomplish.”
STOVALL: Finally — and again, I know it’s early — but have you had a chance to chat with the current coaching staff, and how important is it to you to retain members of the coaching staff?
DUKES: “I haven’t had the opportunity to sit down with each coach yet, but I want to and I want to give every coach that wants the opportunity a chance to sit down and stay at Alcovy. Let’s sit down and talk about it. That’s important to me, because these are the men who have put in the energy and time and effort and invested in these kids, and you want to have those types of guys connected with your program.”
Coach Dukes will be our special guest during our Wednesday afternoon podcast that can be found at covnews.com or on SoundCloud.