An area product will take over the reins of the Nelson County football program, with the school announcing Saturday the hiring of Darrin McKenzie as head coach.
McKenzie, a Brookville grad, takes over for Matt Hicks, who is leaving his post after four years for the head job at Monticello.
McKenzie — a running back during his playing days at BHS, with the Hargrave Military postgraduate program and at Division III Bridgewater — takes over the head coaching post after serving as an assistant under Hicks for the past four years.
“I think we made great strides in the last four years, and I’m just picking up the baton from where Hicks left off,” McKenzie said, adding he hopes to “build Nelson into a winning program.”
McKenzie has been responsible for coaching running backs and outside linebackers and served as the team’s running game coordinator.
“I said to anyone who would listen, said, ‘He’s gonna be a great head coach,’” Hicks said of McKenzie. “So I’m glad he’s getting this opportunity at this point in his career.”
McKenzie currently is a member of the NCHS’ technology department and has worked for the division for four years.
“We are excited for our student-athletes, our program, and our community. Coach McKenzie’s passion and enthusiasm for the game of football is contagious, and our student-athletes are fortunate to have him as their head coach,” Nelson athletic director Greg Mullins said in a news release. “We are eager to see where the program goes under the direction of Coach McKenzie, and we are excited for the future of Nelson County football.”
Hicks also praised McKenzie’s character, on display in the amount of care he has for the student-athletes. Players are able to talk with McKenzie “about anything and everything,” Hicks said, adding McKenzie also has made it a priority to check up on players as they are out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the biggest things in this business is someone who really cares about the kids they coach, and Darrin shows that to the highest degree,” Hicks said. “… Heck of a mentor. Heck of a leader.”
McKenzie said he and the rest of the coaching staff worked to implement accountability programs for the student-athletes, explaining he’s tried to keep players responsible in what they do off the field, such as completing classwork, and in their athletic activities. He added Nelson has made progress on the field because of those systems that kept players committed in practice and in the weight room in the offseason.
McKenzie takes over a program that is losing eight seniors, including contributors like Felix Rodriguez (running back) and Brice Wilson, a versatile player who can catch, run and play on special teams. Back for the Governors will be quarterback George Brown, one of the area’s leaders in total passing yards in 2019, his junior season.
According to McKenzie, the Governors in 2020 will “pretty much be what we were last year,” meaning he doesn’t intend to change much offensively. On that side of the ball, McKenzie said he will continue to put the ball in Brown’s hands in hopes he can pick up chunks of yardage through the air, and McKenzie pointed to Aveon Tabb as someone to watch in the run game. Tabb has played behind Rodriguez and has shown flashes of promise the past couple seasons.
McKenzie said he still has to look at whether anything will change defensively.
Nelson in the past four years put together a 10-30 record and in 2019 posted it is best season since 2007, finishing with a 4-6 record. NCHS went 5-5 in 2007, the last time it posted a .500 record.
The Governors are entering their second year back in the Dogwood District after competing as an independent in 2017 and 2018. The program since the turn of the century has posted four seasons in which it went .500 or better, and hasn’t had a winning record since the Governors went 8-3 in 2002.
Nelson, though, aims to build on the momentum of a campaign in which 50-plus players were part of the football program’s JV and varsity teams. When Hicks first arrived on the scene in 2016, 18 players were on the varsity team.
Additionally, many of the players in the youth football program that was revived in 2016 — which Hicks recently guessed has 50 participants — are old enough now to participate in the high school program. In the past, many newcomers to the high school program didn’t have much experience, but the youth program has been dedicated to helping kids learn the basics and Nelson’s system.
Practice for the fall season is slated to begin at the end of July with Opening Night games planned for the end of August, but no schedules have been released yet. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed back the deadline for football schedules from early May to mid-June.
Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.