Joe Blackwell’s mark at Carolina Forest was made official in a preseason scrimmage.
Standing on a soggy practice field earlier this month, the Panthers’ first-year offensive coordinator saw a blatant hold against one of his receivers downfield. A nearby referee – one of about 15 there that day also getting ready for a new season – got an earful.
It was a blush-inducing rant that had some parents laughing and others cringing. Either way, it was their introduction to the new assistant and a glimpse into the passion the players had already seen.
“He’s like that every day,” senior tailback Harold Atkinson said. “He loves to win, and he hates losing.”
That may be the best description of Blackwell, a guy who up until last December was a college assistant. He started his college career at Pikeville (Kent.) College before moving on to Newberry in 2003. He then accepted a position at South Carolina State under head coach Buddy Pough.
After two seasons there, he was promoted to offensive coordinator and led a group that helped the Bulldogs rank among the top-10 Football Championship Subdivision teams in the country.
However, he left that program because of health and monetary concerns.
He didn’t stay out of the game long.
In 2010, he was back on the sidelines, coaching the Norfolk State tight ends. He was promoted to offensive coordinator with four games remaining that season, and he kept the role for all of 2011.
In those 16 contests running the offense, NSU was 13-3 and averaged about 28 points per game. Again, though, it wasn’t enough to keep him where he was. Head coach Pete Adrian informed Blackwell that he and his spread offense were gone at the end of last year.
“The head man decided he was a defensive first, two-back guy,” Blackwell said. “He basically said it was a philosophy difference. He wanted to go back to what he did before and did.
“He just basically said he had two or three years left to coach and he wanted to do things his way all the way around. I’ve never been bitter about it. It’s one of those deals. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Blackwell wasn’t happy about the decision, but he used it as a good reason to take a year off from the game. He and his wife, Jami, had already considered Myrtle Beach their full-time home before he went to Norfolk State. Blackwell assumed a non-football year at the beach would do him some good.
Once more, that time away from the game didn’t last.
He met Panthers’ offensive line coach Will Bratcher at a camp in North Carolina, and an eight-hour conversation with Hummel sealed the deal on a new gig. The whole process took just weeks, and it returned Blackwell to the level he says brought about some of his fondest coaching memories.
Blackwell, the brother of former Clemson assistant David Blackwell, spent his first decade of coaching at Berea (1992-1997) and Camden (1998-2001). He helped the latter win the Class AAA state title in his last season there.
Coming to Carolina Forest – and back to the high school ranks in general – was a matter of making it all fit in a hurry.
“A lot of things we were doing offensively were things he was doing offensively,” Hummel said. “What we decided to do to make the transition easier for the kids was to fuse the terminology. Once that was in place, I gave him the freedom to put in his own tweaks.
“We’re evolving, and it was a good showing for the first time out.”
Even though the Panthers dropped their season opener to Socastee, Carolina Forest put up plenty of offense and 40 points. First-time starting quarterback Will Brunson was 30-of-48 for 367 yards and three touchdowns. First-year starting receiver Zavier Jones set a single-game school record with 11 receptions. And Atkinson rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns.
It was a solid first step for a bunch of players Blackwell said had a hard time making it all the way through his first few practices because of the speed and intensity he brought to the workouts.
As for exactly how long he’ll be in place, however, remains to be seen. Blackwell, who is being paid a small supplement from the football program, is ecstatic about the opportunity to spend his falls close to Jami and the couple’s 7-year-old daughter instead of hours away.
Blackwell also raves about the opportunity to work with Brunson and the rest of a very talented sophomore class for three full years.
“I’m pretty much assured them I would be here next year,” Blackwell said. “If it’s not one of those jobs that you just have to take, we’re not taking it. I’m reserved to that, being here next year.”
Said Hummel: “Unless something that comes that just blows him out of the water, I think he’ll be here next year. We’ll sit down and talk about it after the season, but he’s not the type of guy who is going to hang us out to dry.”
On the contrary, Blackwell has the looks of a guy who is going to take this offense to new heights, even if it is just for a year or two. The Panthers scored those 40 points last week despite five turnovers. Subtract those, and a 50-point outing in his first game looked very possible.
If nothing else, he has his players’ attention. And not just because of his fiery attitude.
“When you got a guy who comes down from that level, you can coach on any level,” Atkinson said. “He’s going to make me a lot better. So of course I’m going to listen to what he has to say.”