Rocconi returns to lead his alma mater

Bringing some old school back to the new school is what Joe Rocconi wants to do as he returns to his alma mater.

A 1995 Collierville High School graduate, Rocconi was hired in February after six years as head coach at White Station, a school the Dragons host on Sept. 20.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Rocconi, who has been inducted into the

CHS Hall of Fame. “It’s something I’ve thought about a long time. It is unbelievable to come back to your alma mater where you have grown up and been through the mill of the whole blood, sweat and tears thing. Anytime you have an opportunity to do that and lead the program is a blessing.”

It is a different school than when he left. In August 2018, a new multi-million dollar school opened after more than three years construction.

“They spared no expenses. They did it perfectly. We have great resources. I have been more than surprised to see the facilities up close. Every day I see a different room that is top-notch,” said Rocconi. “When I walk inside this place it’s like ‘Wow.’”

Living in Collierville since 1990, Rocconi is raising his family. He and his wife Lauren have a daughter Sophia, 10, and son Dominic, 7.

“I love Collierville,” he said.

What brought Rocconi to the new school was the coaching of legendary

football coach Paul Cox at the old school.

“One of the reasons I got into coaching was my coach here Paul Cox. What he has done for me and along with guys like (assistants) Coach (John) Humphreys and Coach (Andy) Clayton, to name a couple, mainly Coach Cox was the first time I started thinking about coaching,” said Rocconi, who was a linebacker and offensive lineman for the Dragons from 1991 through 1994 seasons and went on to play linebacker at Memphis from 1995-1999.

“Playing for a man like Coach Cox, I don’t know if I can put anything over that. I appreciated him when I was playing for him, no doubt, but I didn’t realize the things that he did and the things that he had to do until I became a coach myself. I appreciated him a whole lot. How he did it, how he was composed and did it with class, character, faith. He was really a great example for anybody to strive for.”

With a 280-133 record, Cox retired after 34 seasons that began at CHS in 1976 and ended after the 2009 season. He died in 2010, the sixth winningest coach in the state.

He coached the Dragons and Rocconi to the 1993 state semifinals and 1994 state quarterfinals. Brentwood Academy eliminated them both years.

“We used to be that team that other teams did not want to come out here and play.. We won a lot more than we lost but the ones we lost, those teams knew they had a fight. One benefit of being an alum is telling players of tradition,” said Rocconi.

“My goal is to give Collierville a team to be proud of. Our goal is to take our program to the next level. I think our program is in great shape. Coach Cox built it to where it was. Coach (Mike) O’Neil has done a great job.”

After battling throat cancer, O’Neill, 2017 Region 7-6A Coach of the Year, resigned in December. He was head coach seven years. The Dragons were 40-38 under him including a 35-28 victory over an 8-2 Wilson Central in the first round of the 2016 state playoffs.

Impressed with the “character of our guys, we have some awesome kids,” Rocconi said players are developing pride in the program.

“Our guys are coming back are hungry, ready to make a statement. I think guys are going to play extremely hard. I think our level of play is going to rise because what we have been focusing on is our toughness.

“Every day during the summer I told them they have to get tougher. Some kids we are not sure how far they can push themselves. Some guys lack a little confidence. Hopefully that is something we improve.”

The Dragons are looking to improve on a 5-6 record in 2018. Two players that can help them do that are the most experienced on the team, senior quarterback Mitch Austin and senior defensive tackle Jared Dawson.

Expecting big contributions and leadership from both, Rocconi calls them “difference makers.”

Dawson (6-2, 270), who has committed to Louisville, was named to the Tennessee Sports Writers Association All-State team last season after making 57 tackles (38 solos), 19 tackles for loss and 7 sacks. He was first-team All-Region 7-6A. He is on Murphy Fair’s Tennessee High School Football magazine preseason All-State team.

Austin, also a 2018 TSWA all-state nominee and first-team all-region quarterback, passed for 1,643 yards completing 133 of 249 passes, 13 touchdowns, 12.35 average per pass, 93.7 quarterback rating, 119.6 efficiency rating.

He has been learning a new spread, multiple offense with multiple formations and a balanced run and passing attack.

“We don’t have wristbands any more. I’ll be running back to the huddle having to remember everything,” said Austin (5-10, 175).

Playing a preseason scrimmage at Johnson Field, now used for soccer and different lines for football, Austin kept running.

“I thought I was scoring a touchdown but I was really out of bounds,” he said. “I know what a good team is and how we work bonding as an offense and working together. I feel my experience is going to help. I have confidence in myself. I can be a leader.”

Austin will throw to new receivers with Justin Stonework now playing at Morehouse and Kayvon Anderson at Missouri Southern State University.

Stonework was first-team all-region and TSWA all-stat nominee and had 63 receptions for 785 yards, 5 touchdowns, 5 touchdowns. Anderson had 46 receptions for 666 yards, 6 touchdowns and four 2-point conversions.

Wide receivers Jay Cole, 6-0, 170-pound and Scottie Alexander, 6-1, 185-pound junior, will be targets along with Braden Bender, 6-1, 165 junior.

Alexander will also play defensive back as will Duple Travillion, 5-10, 160-pound sophomore who will also be a running back.

Rocconi expects Alexander and Travillion to have breakout years and calls Travillion “our star running back. He looks really good. He is a guy people don’t know about. He is a good worker, a great kid..”

Senior running back LaDarin Brown (5-5, 166) rushed for almost 200 yards last season on 60 carries and scored three touchdowns.

The key to the Dragons will be their offensive line.

“I believe we have great size,” said Rocconi. Three returning starters are all juniors, Cole Waycaster (6-3, 285), Gavin Turfler (6-3, 300), Noah Upchurch (6-3, 295).

Another starting offensive lineman is Ethan DePriest, 5-11, 251-pound senior, who will also play defensive line.

“He is definitely one of our leaders, a high-motor guy, inspirational guy,” said Rocconi.

The offensive line will have Ian Falkner, 6-2, 256-pound sophomore, and Jacob Shelton, 6-5, 300-pound junior.

“They are getting bigger and tougher. Mitch Austin is phenomenal. If we can’t protect and block for him it is not going to matter,” said Rocconi.

“We are hoping the offensive line grows up quickly because with their size and ability, they can be strong.”

The multiple defense will have a 5-man front, 2 linebackers and 4 defensive backs.

The defensive line is more established with Dawson leading the charge. Ethan Hassler, 6-3, 210-pound junior, will be tight end and defensive end. DePriest will play defensive line.

“We hope he is a dominate force,” said Roconni of DePriest.

Dawson said that while the defense is similar with new faces starting, “People are used to it. We have to establish the bond. Last year I think that is what made us so much better. I can share with the people around me because we have younger people playing the defensive line this year, share what I know with them and help the entire team.”

Dawson is the strongest player on the team. He bench presses 315 pounds and has improved under strength and conditioning coach Austin King, who Dawson said pushes players to be disciplined in their workouts.

“We have eyes on us,” said Dawson, who wrestled for the Dragons, finishing 15-3 this year and third in the state in the 280-pound class.

“I hope I can go undefeated. One person in Tennessee beat me last year and he was a senior. There was an Atlanta and Alabama dude that beat me. I doubt I’ll end up meeting them again. If I do I’ll beat them because the three losses were when I doubted myself before (the match).

“I thought I was going to lose every time going in and I lost. Now I don’t doubt myself any more.”

Dawson recovered from tearing a hip flexor and quad muscle while doing sprints his junior year. Through rehab strengthened his leg.

“I had never had a big injury before, that was the first,” said Dawson, who is not afraid to take a dare.

He did a back flip off a church pool table last year when a girl told him to. He landed on bean bags.

“I hit it kind of. I landed on my knees,” he said.

Dawson committed to Louisville after a visit because it felt like home and was the favorite school he visited. “I knew it was the one,” he said.

One of Collierville’s greatest strengths is its kicking game.

“I have been on a lot of teams that haven’t had one kicker and we have three guys competing on that,” said Rocconi with senior Caleb Myers, junior Sam Cardenas, sophomore Hudson Hollenbeck, each having the ability to kick in college.

Rocconi has seen Myers kick a 60-yard field goal.

“Those guys are touchback guys,” he said. Cardenas was first-team all-region punter last season.

“The kicking gurus that rank kickers and punters ranked Hudson the No. 1 punter in his class in the nation and he has to battle for a job because the other two guys are awesome,” said Rocconi.

The most improved player is senior wide receiver Andrew Smith (6-2, 170). A member of the basketball team, Smith had not played varsity football before.

“He has worked his way up from the bottom of the depth chart to where he is starting. I have been very impressed. He is a good athlete,” said Rocconi.

Adding depth will be Luke Tankersley, 6-2, 215-pound senior tight end; Davinci Floyd, 6-3, 340-pound junior offensive and defensive lineman; Cole Shive, 6-0, 150-pound senior linebacker, Kentarius Willis, 6-0, 220-pound senior tight end/linebacker; Christian Flynn, 5-7, 168-pound junior linebacker; Jaden Malone, 5-10, 180-pound junior linebacker; Braxton Crouse, 6-1, 170-pound senior wide receiver/defensive back; Alston Elam, 5-10, 168-pound junior wide receiver/defensive back; Javere Washington, 6-0, 192-pound senior wide receiver/defensive back.

The Dragons lost top players to graduation including linebacker Cade Cupp, who had 57 tackles (32 solos) and scored two rushing touchdowns; Jordan Henderson, a cornerback with 71 tackles, 6 interceptions, 16 pass breakups who is playing at Missouri Southern; C.J. Barnes, a defensive lineman at Murray State, who was first-team all-region with 54 tackles (33 solos), 21 assists, 16 tackles for loss, 8 sacks. He was a TSWA nominee for all-state.

Austin’s goal is to improve daily.

“With a new school, new coach, new everything, that is motivation to everyone to win. All the guys are working extremely hard. I want to win the region title, make a deep run in the playoffs and see what happens from there. There is no other thing than winning,” said Austin, who wants the program to be on a level with annual state championship contenders.

One of Shelby-Metro’s top baseball players, Austin said that he will decide after baseball season if he will play that or football collegiately. He played for the Arkansas Prospects this summer, some nights getting in at 1 a.m. and getting up early for football practice that went about three or four hours.

Dawson’s goal is “to get back to a winning team.” (Collierville went 6-5 in 2017). He also wants to be first-team all-state and “go far in the playoffs.”

Faith has played a big role in each Austin’s and Dawson’s life.

“I pray every day. I feel like it transitions (into football),” said Austin.

Dawson said, “I got to God every day because without Him I definitely would not be where I am today. I don’t think I really deserve to be where I am. The way I used to be I didn’t work as hard as I should but God lets me look at how I am today. I work hard and feel like this is what His plan is to have me to do.”

Assistant coaches Nick Marchy and Mike Bradley have been strong influences on Dawson he said.

For Rocconi, faith is “the basis of everything. My dad (Paul Rocconi) gave me a quote since I was little, ‘As long as you keep faith and work hard your time will come.’ I didn’t understand it at first but when you hit hard hard times you realize you rely on your faith and keep working hard.

“I have always been a Type A (personality) and I think I am opting to will things to happen. I realize that we are on God’s time not our time. We need to keep the faith and keep working hard like my dad told me. It is going to happen like it is supposed to happen. My faith is very important.”

Rocconi wants his Collierville coaching career to begin with a victory against Southwind Aug. 2 plus win the first region game (Cordova on Oct. 4) and beat rival Houston (Oct. 11).

He expects a strong start, “a great start” from the Dragons. His White Station teams, where he coached from 2013-18, were known for peaking toward the end of the season after a tough upfront schedule.

“We built some confidence and got rolling,” he said. “Ideally you want to start strong and end strong.”

The Spartans went to the state seminfinals in 2013 and also advanced to quarterfinals in 2015 and 2017.

Rocconi coached at Rossville Christian Academy from 2003-09 and at St. Patrick Catholic High School in Biloxi, Mississippi, three seasons from 2010-12.

“The best memories I have had coaching combine a lot of things. The biggest kick I get out of is when a kid signs a football scholarship, when they get an academic scholarship to college,” he said.

He has seen former players raise their families “well,” be successful. “That is pretty awesome. That is what keeps me going.”

He has become a better coach he said.

“I have a lot to learn. When I had kids myself I saw other kids in a little bit different way. I sympathize with parents more. Everybody loves their kids and want the best for them just like me,” said Rocconi.

“I have learned I need to rely on people more, on coaches, surround myself with great people. Some coaches will shy away from (from a head coaching job). I was like I want this. That (desire) makes me better. It forces me to work hard. I don’t want to let those people down.”

One of his assistant coaches Logan Johns he coached at Rossville.

While it may seemed to outsiders to be an easy decision, Rocconi said that he was at “a great school” in White Station.

“It wasn’t easy to leave a great school,” said Rocconi, who told fans on Dragon Night that CHS was his fourth and final head coaching destination.

What excites Rocconi is building relationships with players.

“I love being around the kids. That is what keeps me going,” he said.

His coaching philosophy is “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said. “They will run through a wall for you if they know you love them and care for them.”

Jay Cole, Cole Shive, Scottie Alexander, Marcus Murphy, Kannon Trice, Donovan Mathena, Jaden Spencer, Duple Travillion, Alston Elam, Stephen Young, Javere Washington, Kameron Clark, Houston Wilhelm, Ethan Hassler, Kentarius Willis, Vedaant Patel, Tyler Collier, Johnthan Jefferson, Keron Jeffries, Mario Sanders, Hunter Rodgers, Ethan Pettigrew, Patrick Shivers, Trey Erwin, Will Patton, Braden Bender, Russell Hanks, Braxton Crouse, Jared Dawson, Mitch Austin, Ian Falkner, Jaden Malone, Jordan Johnson, Kedrick Malone Jr., Eli Eubanks, Matthew Scoggins, Aiden Jonkman, John Hampton, Casey Parrish, Caleb Myers, Noah Upchurch, Keyshawn Williams, Cole Waycaster, Andrew Smith, Terence Hansbrough, Sam Cardenas, AJ Hall, Luke Tankersley, Emmanuel Iroh, Nolan Adams, Xavier Gladney, Myles Wesley, Gavin Turfler, Hudson Hollenbeck, Ethan DePriest, Brayden Hendricks, Davinci Floyd, Carlos James, Jacob Shelton, Christian Iroh, Connor Flippo, Andrew Anderson, Caleb Mueller, LaDarin Brown, Michael Carter, Dylan Powell, Terrence Choi, Christian Flynn, Desztin Harris, Kelvin Anderson, Jacob Crouch and Devin Shegog

Principal Roger Jones

District AD Jeff Curtis

School AD Dan Holcomb

Head Coach Joe Rocconi

Asst. Coaches Mike Bradley, Mitch Davis, Logan Johns, Austin King, Nick Marchy, Tommy Miller, Bond Smith, Patrick Elam, Leon Floyd, Blake Bennett, Carlos Williams

Managers Grayson Hall, Peyton Pitts, JD Mills

Athletic Trainers Jared Vowell, Matt Norton