The Enloe Eagles are soaring to brand new heights under second-year coach Ken Blocker. Enloe is 8-0 overall and 4-0 in conference play, uncharted waters for a program that, historically, has struggled on the gridiron.
The Eagles head into Friday’s contest against Leesville Road (7-2, 3-1), in a conference showdown that has huge implications in league standings. Coming off their bye week, Blocker sat down and explained what it took to get his team to this point, and very little of it had to do with what actually happens on the football field.
Blocker was an assistant coach with the Eagles before getting the head job, and all he heard about was Enloe’s dark past, including winless seasons in 2013 and 2015. Confidence was lacking because, honestly, there was no history of success. Blocker, who has a psychology degree from Duquesne, knew he had to get inside the heads of his football team.
So he decided they had to find confidence from somewhere, anywhere.
“My staff and I realized when we were playing games and things got tough or they had reached adverse situations, it had gotten to a point where we almost had to be therapists on the sidelines,” Blocker said. “We took the approach in the offseason of where can we find success so that they can get used to success, and used to positive praise.”
The first thing they started doing sounds simple -- they cheered players for being in class and getting assignments turned in on time. The players started getting verbal praise from their teachers and it started to become a “cool thing” to do what they were supposed to do in class.
That verbal praise carried over to offseason workouts and as the players’ bodies started to change, Blocker and his staff continued with the pats on the backs, which might as well been a shot of confidence with each tap.
“We took it in stages,” Blocker said. “First thing was academics because we had to clean that up. The next thing was believing in offseason workouts.”
The GPA’s and body muscle jumped, and when college coaches started coming in and seeing that Enloe student-athletes were clear in the classroom and looking good outside of it, the players bought in to handling business in the offseason.
EXPOSURE TO EACH OTHER
Blocker’s next step did involve football, even though it wasn’t football actually played by Enloe players at first. He made sure his guys were exposed to college football, so he loaded them up on a bus and took them to practices at N.C. State, just to see how college football players looked.
After that, like most schools, he made sure they had a busy summer of 7-on-7 sessions, just to get the guys used to being a team. Enloe, a magnet school, doesn’t have the luxury of most of their players growing up and playing football together. Their roster is made up of players from as far away as Fuquay-Varina.
“We had to make sure they saw each other as teammates, because they didn’t,” Blocker said. “They were quick to fight amongst each other as a team.”
When he was an assistant Blocker remembers as incident when two football players were fighting in the hallway during school, both wearing their Enloe jerseys before an upcoming game.
“We had to cut that type of stuff out,” Blocker said. “We couldn’t self sabotage, we had to eliminate that.”
Blocker and his staff created a home atmosphere. They repainted the locker room and installed a projector inside the field house so the players could watch film together, or Netflix before practice after they got their work done. He wanted the locker room to be an extension of their bedroom at home.
NOT JUST COACHES
Players’ trust with football coaches at Enloe had been shaky. With the high turnover in school history, the players were always looking for their next coach. When Blocker was named the head coach he remembers a player asking him “when are you going to leave?”
He noticed the players mentality towards the sports was more “oh well, I tried’” than ‘try, try and try again.’ He felt like that was a defensive mechanism, the players protecting their feelings.
On Monday’s before practice the entire coaching staff and the players all sit down in the locker room and talk about their feelings. Seriously. Blocker gathers the entire team, and they sit down to talk before taking the field. And the gloves are completely off. Nothing is off limits, and nothing leaves those four walls, it stays between the team members.
“Sometimes we tell them don’t try to find the proper words,” Blocker said. “Exactly how you feel, let it out. However they are feeling about home, about school, if it’s something that’s out there, however they want to put it out there and it’s completely unfiltered. It develops that trust and we get to bond with these guys on a different level.”
Blocker said his coaches share their experiences, positive and negative, and it lets the players know they once went through what the players are going through now.
NO PREGAME SPEECH
Finally, a step that has something to do with actual gameday.
Blocker put two unique twists on the Eagles’ pregame routine on Friday nights. First, when they play home games, Enloe warms up on the practice field, about a half a mile walk away from the game field.
When he was an assistant he noticed his guys spent most of the pregame looking in the stands. Blocker used too much energy getting them to focus, so he eliminated that element. But that only works during home games, so that’s not as big a deal.
Before the Eagles take the field, the young coach elects not to have a final word with his squad. That’s right, no pregame speech for Blocker.
“I noticed with the speeches, it would put them on such an emotional roller coaster,” Blocker explained. “They start so high and you’re giving them your let’s win one for the gipper speech, then the moment they get hit, they are looking at you and I’m not on the field with them, so they have to do it themselves.”
Anyone is allowed to talk before the game, but Blocker elects not too. He calls it the calm before the storm, and his players have gravitated to that, staying quiet and collecting their thoughts, preparing the game in their own mind before kickoff.