ROSWELL, Ga. — Anxiety always accompanies a football program when it faces a head coaching vacancy. That was especially the case for Fellowship Christian after its winningest coach in program history, Al Morrell, announced his retirement following the 2020 season.
Morrell had led the program since 2013 and put Fellowship on the map as one of the top programs in Class A-Private with 66 wins, three region championships and a state runner-up finish in eight seasons.
That was the bad news for the Paladins entering this year. The good news — they essentially hit the coaching jackpot ahead of the 2021 season.
Tim McFarlin, who has over 40 years of coaching experience in North Fulton at Milton, Roswell and Blessed Trinity, will lead the team with four state championships, nine region titles and nearly 200 wins to his name.
Several of McFarlin’s coaching staff from Blessed Trinity have crossed the street to follow him, including former defensive coordinator John Thompson and defensive line coach Coleman Rudolph. There’s also Fellowship’s new tight ends coach and strength coach that have followed McFarlin, in addition to several of his former players who have also joined his staff. Many have been with McFarlin for a decade.
Former Atlanta Falcons player Mike Haynes has also joined the staff along with Brandon Siegler, a former offensive line coach at Woodward Academy. Defensive line coach Jake Robertson has remained on staff with McFarlin calling him a “bright young coach,” that has bridged the gap between the existing program and its new coaches.
A new coaching staff, no matter its level of talent and experience, can present new challenges for players. But McFarlin said the transition has been ideal.
“The players could not have been better, they’ve been like sponges,” he said. “That’s why we are not worried about the new things they have to learn. The energy level has been really, really good. I’ve been taken aback by how humble they are and the maturity they have in their faith. And the support from the school has been outstanding. It’s just a good time at Fellowship right now.”
Many of the players are new. Fellowship graduated a large and talent-rich senior class last year, and the 2021 squad has but a handful of seniors.
“We are going to have a young team,” McFarlin said. “Because of that, we are going to make some mistakes, no doubt about that, but those mistakes will be made at full speed.”
The team will sport updated schemes on offense and defense. Offensively, the Paladins have ditched the option. McFarlin said there will still be a strong emphasis on the run game, but the team hopes to move the ball through the air more.
The defense will likely take longer to adjust to its new attacking style, McFarlin said, but his squad is full of quick learners and the enthusiasm for the revamped style of play has been “through the roof.”
Junior Caleb McMickle will lead the offense at quarterback, stepping into the starting role after appearing in nine games for the Paladins last season. McFarlin said the junior’s play has been “outstanding” in the offseason.
Senior Josh Cole will lead the rushing attack after compiling nearly 600 yards on the ground last season with 10 touchdowns behind graduated standout Murphy Reeves.
McMickle will have an athletic target at outside receiver in Jonathan Long, who will also play in the defensive secondary. Long will be joined by fellow junior Clay Shepler, who McFarlin called a “leader” on the outside.
Kyle Elphick will also return as tight end and with the Paladins’ linebacker core.
“I really like our linebackers, we have four guys playing on the back half that are looking really good,” McFarlin said.
McFarlin is also expecting junior defensive back Josh Milhollin to make an impact in the secondary.
With new talent stepping into a larger role this season, McFarlin expects it will take some time for the 2021 Paladins to find their full stride. But the coaching staff’s familiarity with one another and his players’ eagerness to work will help.
“As the season progresses, I think we have a chance to get better every week,” McFarlin said. “Our strengths are going to be something we find out more down the road. But right now, we are exactly where we hoped we’d be.”
The expectations have perhaps never been higher for Fellowship as it enters 2021. Over the past five seasons, the program has compiled four years of 10 wins or more, reached the quarterfinals of the playoffs in four of those seasons and enter 2021 as the two-time defending Region 6-A champs.
The 2021 team is aiming to build on that success with its new coaching staff and on-field talent.
“Fellowship has a great foundation and tradition under Al Morrell, a very close friend of mine,” McFarlin said. “The community here is outstanding, the administration is moving in a great direction on several fronts, there are some big things happening at the school and we just feel good about getting here.”