Football getting ‘down and derby’ in offseason competition

Jockey Jamie Wolfzorn encourages Racer One to round the track following a Murray State touchdown. (Blake Sandlin/TheNews)

Story by Nigel Walton

Contributing writer

The Murray State football team’s season ended almost three months ago, but its coaching staff has engineered an innovative new way to keep players competitive in the

The competition, called Derby Days, was the creation of Head Coach Mitch Stewart and conditioning coach John Clay, who came up with the idea as a way to identify leaders and make the team more accountable.

There are six teams of 13, with each team led by a captain and a co-captain. The Racer football team will host a competition among the teams every Friday, which will last around eight to 10 weeks, through spring football.

Stewart decided on the name Derby Days as a means of promoting the pride around the school’s mascot.

“There are a lot of tigers, bears, lions, eagles, that are used for mascots; there is only one Racer,” Stewart said. “I have a lot of pride in that name and mascot. So everything we do or have I try to relate back to Racers, horses, running, racing. Same reason why we call the locker room the Stables and the team room the Paddock and each locker room Stalls.”

Everything done during Derby Days is all player based. The coaches have no impact on who is selected as captains or who is drafted.

“I got with a select few of the seniors that were outgoing from last year and asked them of the guys coming back who would you like to see in a leadership role,” Stewart said of the selection process.

Team one’s captains are free safety Dior Johnson and tight end James Sappington. Team two’s captains are right tackle Cam Carter and cornerback Quinaz Turner. Team three’s captains are defensive tackle Chris Stahl and wide receiver Malik Honeycutt.

Team four’s captains are wide receiver Jared McCray and center Levi Nesler. Team five’s captains are quarterback Preston Rice and running back Rodney Castille, and team six’s captains are middle linebacker Kendrick Catis and tight end Jensen Feggins.

Once the teams were chosen, the captains went into a separate room as if they were NFL general managers. Attempting to emulate an NFL Draft, the team had a draft board set up with all the current players on the roster, allowing each captain to hand-pick his roster.

“The whole essence of the deal is just trying to create leadership, you know, and our mission statement here is to develop people academically, socially, spiritually and athletically, and I think socially and athletically that boils down to leadership and leadership skills.” Stewart said.

Derby Days kicked off on Jan. 25. One of the five competitions included a plate push where each team member had to push a 25 pound plate 20 yards, 10 yards down and 10 yards back.

The first day of Derby Days ended with team four, led by McCray and Nesler finishing on top with 30 points.

“We got to see the competitive drive between the teammates,” Clay said. “Like who’s actually going to compete, who’s actually going to sit in the back, who wants to push their teammates to win, who kind of just sits in the back.”

The Racers only had one competition last Friday. It was a relay where the teams had to pick up one-pound metal bars. There were 13 total bars to pick up. Each bar was placed in two and a half yard increments going 30 yards down the field.

The teams would start at the goal line and run and compete to see which team could get all the bars back to the starting point. One player would go at a time from each team, and when that following player returned, the next player went to go grab a bar.

Some teams strategized to let the fastest players on their respective squads go first and get the furthest bar and let the slowest players get the ones closer to the starting point.

A very competitive event ended in a sudden death between team two, led by Turner and Carter, and team five, led by Rice and Castille.

The current standings have team four tied with  team six, led by Catis and Feggins.

The competitions will continue each Friday morning during the teams’ outside conditioning.

Even outside of the lines, Murray State’s football team is doing its part to ensure they’re prepared for life inside the lines come late August.

The team will officially begin its season on Aug. 29 against the University of Pikeville.