When Blake Shirah decided to get a group of good football players together, select a uniform, a logo, a name and decide on which league to join, he wasn’t just starting a football team, but much more than that.
“We don’t call ourselves a team,” Shirah told Developmental Football USA. “We are a program. Teams come and go, but programs are there to stay. We are a program.”
The newly-formed program is the Chilton Tigers and they will play their first pre-season game against the Alabama Tigers on Feb. 9, before kicking off their inaugural season in the Amateur to Professional Developmental Football League in less than one month.
“We’re excited to be a part of this league and we feel as though we have a very successful program on our hands,” Shirah said.
Based on location, there’s at least four different leagues the Tigers could have wound up in, but there wasn’t much of an evaluation process Shirah had to go through in choosing the APDFL.
“I believe the APDFL has a lot more integrity and is just a better overall league,” Shirah said. “There’s a lot of talent in this league. I’ve always been taught that you’ve got to beat the best to be the best and that’s just my mentality. I played ball with a lot of the guys that are on this team and this team has that same mentality. We always look forward to a challenge and I know it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m very confident in the guys that I have and they are going to do their best to put us in a position to win games at this level.”
Shirah has experience in the APDFL, playing center for the 2018 league finalist Prattville Patriots last year. Due to a change in ownership, the Patriots are taking 2019 off, but Shirah didn’t want to spend a year inactive.
“Last year I got a good feel for the league,” Shirah said. “I really liked the opportunity it gave for young athletes to get that second chance to get film and get seen one last time. It gave me that opportunity. Coming from Chilton County, I know for a fact there’s a ton of talent that hasn’t gotten the opportunity to be seen like they need to be. I made a few calls and got a lot of support, got some sponsorship's and just kind of rolled with it.”
Although this team was quickly formed, the foundation certainly seems solid and the Tigers find themselves ranked No. 13 in the APDFL Pre-Season Polls. It’s the solid foundation that will often be put to the test in a league widely considered as one of the most competitive at this level.
“What I would consider a successful year is for this to not just be a one year team,” Shirah said. “I want to start a program. I feel like if I start a program, not a team, a program, that is very successful in this league and sends these kids to college or arena or whatever level they are looking to play.
“At the end of the day, that is what this league is for is to give kids another opportunity to play at the next level. As an owner, if we are successful in making this a program the community can get behind and we send kids off to the next level, I don’t care if we win the title or finish 0-10 as long as we play with class, compete at a high level and give this community something to be proud of.”
An 0-10 finish is highly unlikely for the Tigers. In fact, Developmental Football USA expects them to finish with a winning record and a playoff berth. It will be interesting to see how they match-up against teams like the Tuskegee Ayrmen, P-Town Wreckaz, Gulf Coast Gators and East Alabama Predators, all of which are on the schedule.
“To be quite honest, I treat all teams as equal,” Shirah said. “We don’t look forward to any certain game, we take it one game at a time. Right now, the only team on my radar is the first game and that’s the Georgia Noles. We don’t look ahead to any one game, we take it one game at a time.”
At this level, it’s common for owners to get emotional, call out other teams or call their championship shot prior to Week 1, but that’s not the Shirah nor the Tigers’ demeanor.
“I’m not going to talk trash,” Shirah said. “I’m going to respect every opponent and take it one game at a time. I don’t know any team that’s ever done what they’re supposed to do and executed like they were supposed to that didn’t win ball games. That’s what we’re here to do. We don’t talk, we show it all on the field.”
Every good offense starts up front with the big guys and that unit alone could make Chilton a force in this league.
“We have one of the strongest offensive lines I’ve seen, anchored down by Derrick Likes, who won a national championship at the University of Auburn,” Shirah said. “He’s going to be a game changer on the defensive and offensive side. The offensive line is the glue that holds the offense together. We also have Quincy Davis who’s very familiar with this league and John Scott, who played in the Blue-Grey All-American Game. We’ve got some big hitters on the offensive line.”
Oftentimes at this level, players come and go and rarely is more than 75 percent of the team at the same practice at any given time. Unfortunately for other teams, that doesn’t describe the Tigers line, which should be very dangerous.
“They know the schemes,” Shirah said. “They know the itty gritty details that go into being an offensive lineman. We have film study, we break it down very detailed. This is a job. We do it very detailed and execute it at a very high level. This offensive line takes pride in being an offensive line. We are a unit and we know what to do. We’re here to win games and execute at a high level.”
This offensive line should allow plenty of time for quarterback Jarius Wilson, formerly of Miles University, to effectively showcase his dual-threat abilities.
“He’s a very potent part of our offensive attack,” Shirah said. “He’s going to be able to air the ball out or beat you with his legs as well. We’ve also got Danzel Waters and Christian Bricoe at wide receiver and I feel like they’re going to be very dominant in this league as well.”
Defensively, look for the former Auburn Tiger, Likes, to also be a force at end.
“He’s got his national championship ring, he is a monster,” Shirah said. “There’s no other way around it. I’m not a cocky person. I’m not like some other owners and coaches. I don’t talk trash, but he is a monster. There’s no other way to put it.”
Also look trio of players who played at Huntington to make some noise on defense in cornerback Jacob Hartley and linebackers Nick Tomberlin and Brandon Williams.
“If Brandon Williams comes through the middle, it’s going to be rough on any offense we face,” Shirah said.
Next Saturday’s pre-season test should provide a pretty solid preview of the No. 13 Tigers as they face the No. 12 Alabama Tigers.
“We’re here to do what we came to do,” Shirah said. “I don’t care if we win 100 games or don’t win any. We look forward to playing this season and we’re grateful to be here.”