Helping lead that charge for Adairsville — which went 10-2 and lost in the second round of the state playoffs — were linebacker Austin Harrell, who finished the season with 115 tackles, and running back Mike Upshaw, who ran for around 1,600 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Already talented players prior to the season, Harrell and Upshaw made the leap to the next level, leaving their footprints on Tigers’ victories throughout the season. For their efforts, the two have been named The Daily Tribune News All-County Football Team’s players of the year on their respective sides of the ball.
Jim Kremer, Adairsville head coach, noticed Harrell several years ago when he first took the reins of the Tigers’ football program.
“Austin, when I first met him his ninth-grade year, I mean, he stuck out to me, and I knew he was gonna be one of those kind of kids,” Kremer said. “He’s done the little things in the classroom, and he’s been not only a leader by example, but also a vocal leader for us, which has been a really good thing.”
Harrell’s improved play has coincided, he said, with his increase in strength over the course of his high school career.
“He works hard in the weight room and he just has a presence about himself. He’s a really good tackler. He has all the assets that [are] needed in being successful,” Kremer continued. “He also plays with his mind; he’s a smart player. He got us lined up right this past year.”
About halfway through last season, Harrell, who had played strong-side linebacker throughout his career, had to fill in for an injured teammate, a move that put him right in the middle of all the action.
“Our job is to put the best 22 on the field, and early we felt like the [best] combination for us was to leave Austin at ‘Sam’ linebacker and, of course, we had Josh [Marshall] at ‘Mike,’” Kremer explained. “And then Josh went down with a knee injury, a season-ending injury. We slid Austin in there after the first series against Armuchee, and he’s just been [getting reps at] that position since he was a freshman, no game-time experience, but it looked like he’d been playing there for three years. He’s versatile.”
“He has all the intangibles that you could ever ask for, not just in a football player but I’m sure he’s gonna be a great dad and a great husband and all those kind of things,” the coach added. “He comes from a really good family. He’s got a lot of support.”
Harrell, who had 23 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, signed a letter of intent last month to play at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., and while Adairsville’s coaching staff did well to instruct him, the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder’s ability doesn’t require much coaching.
“[Linebackers] coach [Billy] Roper did a great job coaching Austin, but a lot of those things are not coached — the sense of tempo and the ball and timing out your blitzes and just running through people,” Kremer said. “It was really mismatches all across the board, even offensive linemen [and] backs couldn’t block him. Wherever he was at, either coming [on] inside pressure or outside pressure, there was always a mismatch. And he loved, obviously, making plays, and I believe it was against LFO where he had something like 20, 21 tackles.”
“He practices hard. He goes about his business like you’re supposed to,” he added. “You can definitely win with kids like Austin.
Victories also can be had with players like Upshaw, of whom the Tigers coach is extremely proud.
“Probably out of all the guys on the team, when it comes to character development, I’m probably more proud of Mike than any of ’em,” Kremer admitted. “Mike came from a tough situation. His dad provided a lot of discipline for him, but we have a family here — the Williams family, Mike and Missy Williams — that took Mike in a couple of years ago and really nurtured his needs. And Mike’s been a good resident for them, too. He’s very meticulous in the things that he does. He folds his own clothes, makes his own bed. He probably had the neatest locker in the locker room. Mike has some real strong tendencies of doing the little things.
“Mike just needed to work on his stubbornness, and he really came through this past year and was more of a team player and led by example. I’m really proud of him for that.”
Upshaw scored in each one of Adairsville’s games, cementing a belief his coaches had long held of him.
“Now, as far as his ability, we always knew he had the ability,” Kremer said. “It was just being more of a team guy and a high character person. He accepted those responsibilities. Without that, we certainly wouldn’t have seen near the success [that we did].”
He said Upshaw works hard in the weight room and is very strong, in addition to being very fast — “a 4.4-type kid [in the 40-yard dash].”
Having all those attributes is nice, but it was Upshaw’s close attention to another detail that further garnered trust from the Tigers’ coaches.
“We had to work on his turnover deal,” Kremer said. “Mike, I think, this past year may have turned it over four or five times. Obviously, he rushed for, like, 1,600 yards. For you to stop Adairsville, you would start trying to stop Mike Upshaw. And I’m sure Mike would tell you the same thing, [that] he wouldn’t have gained those yards if it wasn’t for our offensive line.
“Coach [Doug] Byerts, our offensive coordinator, [and] coach [Pat] Konen, our offensive line coach, did a really good job working with those kids, as well as Drew Elrod, who helped with the running backs. So those guys deserve a lot of credit as well.”
Upshaw’s sensational season didn’t go unnoticed by area rivals and after its first loss of the season to Pepperell, Adairsville knew it had to change the way it used its star running back — a move that made him even more dangerous.
“We actually changed a little bit, and we knew we had to to be effective against the better defensive teams. We wanted to spread the wealth out a little bit. I felt like against Pepperell they were definitely keying all over Mike, and we had some other weapons. We started using those other weapons after that game, which made us more versatile, and I think it made it tougher to stop Mike,” Kremer said. “Whenever you have a kid like that, you want to be careful that you don’t go to the well too much — (A), he gets worn down, and (B), he gets hurt. And then the next thing is, I think me being a defensive guy, it simplifies things. I feel like we can stop one person, usually. Now, if they have two or three multiple type guys — you know, three-headed monster — that’s a lot harder to stop, in particular [in] the passing game.”
Even with the Tigers’ other weapons, having a workhorse back like Upshaw is still a source of comfort for a coach.
“As far as having a go-to guy like that [on] fourth-and-short and all that kind of [stuff] — which we did and they knew we were doing it — it was awful nice to have somebody like that,” Kremer smiled.