Nate James reflects on lessons learned as a rookie coach

Yaneek Smith

Press Sports Editor

Nothing can truly prepare a coach when he makes the move from an assistant to being the head coach.
Northwood alum Nate James found that out this season as he coached the Start Spartans, his first season as a head coach after coaching under his father, Ken, for the better part of the last decade.
Start just finished up its season, going 5-6 and falling to Anthony Wayne in the first round of the playoffs, 41-6. It wasn’t a close game, but it was much better than the 77-6 win the Generals had over the Spartans when the two teams played in week five.
For James, it’s about having a 12-month per year mindset, both physically and mentally, to playing with great teams like Anthony Wayne.
“That’s the level we’re trying to get to. A lot of what we stress with the kids after the game are some of the things we need to correct to beat teams like that. You can’t just do that on Wednesday before the game,” said James. “Their size and development, the physicality up front – there’s a reason that we stress the offense so much. You just have to when you don’t feel great on a Tuesday in February, you have to get into the weight room and unlock your potential. At that stage, we’re not ready yet physically.”
Start nearly won the City League title, falling in the season finale to Lima Senior, 26-14. Start won all of its other league games, going 5-1 in the conference.
Start had plenty of opportunities to score more points and possibly win the game, but three red-zone turnovers and a goal-line interception did the Spartans in.
Trailing 14-0 early in the second quarter, Josiah Jacobs intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown, and the two-point conversion cut the deficit to six. Start recovered an onside kick on the next play and drove to the Lima Senior 9-yard-line but fumbled the ball away.
Lima Senior pushed the lead to 20-8 before Billy Wertz connected with Mavron Thompson on a 22-yard touchdown pass that again cut the deficit to six. Start gave up another touchdown to account for the final scoring when Zaveon Garner hooked up with Kaden Hampton on a 24-yard touchdown pass with 5:37 to play.
James knows his team will rise to the occasion in the future. Losses like that will make the team better in the long run.
“It’s a difficult one to evaluate because on one hand, our guys played pretty well. Our demeanor, the ability to keep competing when we didn’t get off to a great start was there,” he said. “But we just made too many mistakes to survive against a team of that quality. It’s a great opportunity for us in the future. We belong on this kind of stage. We can hang with a team like this. It’s a great opportunity to show that we’re capable of getting there.
“We really like all of our kids; we’re optimistic about our sophomore group. Mavron Thompson and those guys have gotten a lot of attention, and they’re not just physical and talented and have the right demeanor, but they have a tendency to make plays when you need to. We feel like the potential is really strong, but potential is just that until you do something with it. Our kids want to carry themselves the right way and play the right way. We’re optimistic about the future. Everything that we want to accomplish is on the other side of difficult.”
The Spartans started out slowly, losing their first three games, including a 33-28 defeat at the hands of Springfield in week three. But Start righted the ship, defeating Scott, the reigning league champion, 30-26, in front of the home crowd.
The key play came when Thompson stripped Jaaden Sims near midfield, and Jonah Tall recovered the fumble at the Start 39 and returned it to the Scott 38. Two plays later, Tall rumbled for a 38-yard touchdown run to put the Spartans ahead, 30-26 with 2:50 to play.
The Spartan defense held firm as Tall and Byron Jackson knocked some key passes away, including on fourth down, and Alijah Bailey had a sack on third down.
Two other players that played a key role this season were Maurice Gary and Jeremie Jones.
“Scott was picked to win the league, they had beaten us last year. You tell the kids that your opponents are faceless and the process, but they’re high school kids. There are going to be games they really want, and they were amped up. In the game before, we had a lead in the second half that we lost,” said James. “Against Scott, we didn’t play very well for big chunks of time, but give them credit, they were picked to win the league. Over the course of the game, we put ourselves in a position to make plays in the end. It was a big turning point for our kids — you can’t fake confidence in that situation. We had a few sophomores make plays. We’ve had second-half deficits in games we’ve won since then. There’s no substitute for finding ways to get things done. We have to continue to get better and not put ourselves in a position where we have to come back. We have some kids who have really bought into what we’ve tried to teach them technically and fundamentally and how we prepare.
“I think they realized that there is something building here (after the Scott win),” he said.
James talked about incorporating principles from the Rangers’ wishbone/flexbone offense.
“We’re doing a lot of similar concepts, running a lot of options; we’re doing bubble screens, run-pass options (RPOs) – the philosophy of being an option team that looks formationally like anything else you’d see on Friday,” said James. “There are similar concepts, but out of more typical formations. I’m a true believer in option football and being physical and finding a way to use reads. If I could compare it to anything, it’s how we did modernize the offense in 2019 and 2020 when Jay Moten was the quarterback, Demond Marks was the leading wide receiver, we had Anthony Williams and Austin Cole was our slot guy. We modernized the triple (option). That’s what everything was built off of. We also had good players in Dalton Dempsey and Tyler Hughes.”
James worked as an assistant at Northwood for the better part of a decade, even while he was living in Detroit. Most recently, he was the defensive coordinator.
“I got to work with some really smart coaches,” James said. “My co-defensive coordinator with me was Shawn Aiello, who’s still a good friend and someone I’ll text,” James said. “Matt Donegan was the offensive coordinator – he’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around. We had a really good coaching staff from top to bottom.”
There’s no greater way to learn something than to gain valuable experience, he said.
“There’s definitely no perfect way to prepare yourself for becoming a head coach. I’ve prepared for a while; I’ve gotten really lucky because of having my dad as a resource. It’s always something I’ve prepped and prepared for before getting the job at Start,” said James, who is 32 and graduated from Northwood in `09. “I applied for two other jobs that I didn’t get (before). It definitely comes with bumps, but the best way is to learn by doing and making mistakes. There have been a lot of opportunities to learn and grow, and I’m grateful to be in this position. These are great kids; they’ve really bought into what we’re doing. The culture on the team right now is very good, and I’m lucky to come into a situation like this.
“What I would say about Start is overall, the athletic culture in the building is very good. The basketball programs are great, not just talent-wise, but operationally – deep, organized, and both coaches are great guys. A lot of kids when they come to us, it’s not like they haven’t been a part of winning. It can be difficult if you’re at a different school. If you’re good at football but no other sports, it’s hard to maintain that winning culture, but we are good at a lot of sports.”
James knows that a good head coach must trust his assistants.
“You have to rely on people and delegate. You have to build an operation, and then try and out-work people. I’m still working on being a better communicator and delegator, and things like that,” he said. “I moved into a bigger job, but, also, at a bigger school. You just can’t do everything; there just aren’t enough hours in each day. I think I’ve got some really good assistants that are helping out. We are all kind of learning on the fly. It’s been a sometimes chaotic experience, but sometimes a rewarding one.”


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