ALBANY – Albany linebacker Justin Coats was still taking a little time to let the accomplishment sink in.
After all, not everyone is selected the All-Livingston Parish Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s still hitting me a little bit,” Coats said. “I’m excited about it. I wasn’t expecting it, really. It means a lot, though. It’s pretty special to me because we’re competing with Walker and Denham and all those bigger schools. It makes it special to me.”
Albany coach Mike Janis said Coats was deserving of the honor.
“It says that he’s getting the respect that he deserves,” Janis said. “Justin’s a starting inside linebacker or linebacker anywhere at Walker, Denham, Live Oak, Albany, Springfield. There’s not a school in this state I don’t think he can’t play for. Whether it’s a small school, big school, wherever he’s at, he’s one heck of a football player, and in our parish, I really believed that not only (was he) most important to our team but would be that role for any of the teams in this parish. That’s why I put him up. I think they did a great job, the coaches did, of selecting him. Not everybody got to see him play, but his stats back up the caliber of player he is.”
Coats, a junior, turned in a steady season for the Hornets, with 95 tackles (43 solo, 52 assists) in seven games, averaging 13.6 tackles per game, something he couldn’t take all the credit for.
“It’s all my teammates,” Coats said. “Teammates make it happen. Everything I’m able to do is because of them.”
Janis said that works both ways when it comes to Coats and his willingness to help the team in any way possible.
“Justin could have stepped in played guard,” Janis said. “He could have stepped in and started at receiver. He could have stepped in a took snaps at quarterback if we needed him to. The kid’s a fantastic athlete, and he not just can do anything on the field, but (he’s) willing to do anything on the field and really cares about his team. That’s who Justin is.”
Coats’ path to securing the honor came after the Hornets made a change in their defensive scheme twice, moving to a 3-4 look heading into the season before moving to an even front look later in the year. .
“We lost Ronnie (Tubreville) and David (Perez), two big guys off the defensive line, so my thinking going into the year was we’ve got to create some type of defense that allows us to get pressure because we’re not going to get that consistent pressure from the front four any more, and it just didn’t work like I wanted to,” Janis said. “I had to go back and say maybe we’ve got the defensive linemen that can do this and trust the stud that we’ve got at middle linebacker – let him do his job, and he did.”
The change in defensive scheme came at halftime of the game against Pearl River, a contest the Hornets lost 27-14.
The following week -- Albany’s 29-14 road win over Bogalusa -- was one was one to remember for Coats, who finished the game with 23 total tackles -- two for loss -- a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown and a forced fumble. Coats also played offensive guard, working with a sore hamstring during the game.
“Bogalusa’s probably one of the (most fun) games I’ve ever played in in my life,” he said. “I was everywhere, just making tackles, doing everything. It was just fun.”
Janis explained how things worked to Coats’ benefit against Bogalusa.
“What happened is we were running a 3-4 to start off with and put him in position to blitz a little more but also left him vulnerable to some free releases from some linemen,” Janis said. “The second half against Pearl River, we went to an even front and put him there in the middle. Bogalusa was the first game where we were a true even-front team with Justin as the middle linebacker and allowed him to move around.
“We didn’t send him on blitzes,” Janis continued. “He wasn’t getting the sacks or creating havoc in the backfield like he was before, but it allowed him to move around and really control the box and make those tackles.”
Janis said the change in defense was the key to the Hornets’, and Coats’, success.
“He was the guy,” Janis said. “After, really starting the second half of that Pearl River game, we really tried to funnel everything in the box back to him and keep linemen off of him. When he is unblocked and able to roam, there’s nobody better at going to find the football. The kid makes tackles.”
“The other thing that did is took our best defensive player and isolated him to one side of the field,” Janis said. “He’s really there, and we had him on the weak side, too, because I trusted that we weren’t going to get broken by a big play on the counter because Justin’s there. Going back to the even front and letting him command the box was the best move we made this season.”
Coats, who credited former Albany linebacker Tyler Bates with helping him develop better vision on the field, said he kept a simple approach during the season.
“You’ve just got to think you’re the best person on the field,” Coats said. “That’s all I thought before every game, and it worked.”
Capturing this year’s All-Parish honor has given Coats a bit of extra motivation heading into his senior season.
“It makes me want to work even harder and try to get better,” Coats said. “I want to be the best I possibly can for next year.”