Dwain Jenkins embraces history at St. James

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- First-year coach Dwain Jenkins works with players during practice at St. James High School. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- First-year coach Dwain Jenkins works with players during practice at St. James High School.

Jenkins embraces history, rebuilds at St. James

ST. JAMES — Dwain Jenkins looks to the future with the optimism of a new parent. He chooses to embrace the past while doing so.

The 11th football coach at St. James has made a point of introducing his own vision while embracing the program’s rich past.

Jenkins is aware of the tradition.

The 1979 state championship team. The train. The cane fields. Top players such as Rydell Malancon and Luther Ambrose. Coaching predecessors Rick Gaille, Allen Hymel and Jimmy Waguespack.

Printed on defensive playbooks are the words “Legion of Doom,” a throwback to Gaille-era defenses.

Jenkins, 33, reaches into a box and pulls out one of a number of black jerseys purchased for the upcoming season. “St. James” in white, numbers gold. The team is returning to the jerseys of that same era.

“When people throughout the state see the black helmets with the yellow wings, they know who it is and what it means,” Jenkins said. “We’re here to get the program back to where it’s supposed to be — competing for state championships. That is what’s expected by the community. There is a history here. They should expect it.”

Mission to rebuild

St. James hasn’t won a game since 2010, Gaille’s last season. The coaching reins now belong to Jenkins, the former Lutcher offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach whose spread, multiple offensive schemes helped propel the Bulldogs to three state championships in 12 years with St. James’ parish rival.

The St. James history is one of the Wing-T and run-based schemes. One of Jenkins’ first acts after taking over as coach Jan. 22 was to paint the words “Win Today” on a locker room wall.

He said it reflects an attitude of improving each practice, each game. Jenkins said the attack will not necessarily emphasize the pass.

“We’re trying to get our five most dangerous players on the field,” Jenkins said. “If our personnel or game situation calls for a pass, we’ll pass. Same for the run. We never want the defense to be able to key on one guy.”

He cites a Lutcher offense that at varying times produced a 2,300-yard rusher, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in one season and multiple 3,000-yard passers.

“To win in the state playoffs and compete for championships, you have to be able to do both,” he said. “I’ve had experiences in the playoffs where an opponent takes away what you do best and that’s it.”

The building blocks

The offense will be guided by freshman quarterback Lowell Narcisse, whom Jenkins describes as a run-pass talent whose size and presence are “beyond his age.”

Jenkins promises a gap-oriented defense that will be fundamentally sound and “fly to the ball.”

He is hoping the marriage of his frenetic-paced schemes with historically smaller, quicker St. James athletes will be a fruitful one.

The buzz for the Class 2A program is reflected in numbers. When Jenkins was hired, there were between 10-12 players on the rolls. The number of players showing up for the summer workout program has averaged about 50.

Before the spring game, the number swelled to more than 80. Jenkins said he believes the number will settle somewhere in the upper 50s to low 60s in September. That would be twice the size of the Wildcats’ 2012 team.

Senior wide receiver/safety D’Kwan Sandolph was pressed into quarterbacking duties last season becaus of injury. The 6-foot, 164-pound Sandolph went on to lead the team in both rushing and passing yards.

Jenkins gushed, “He’s talented; he’s a great example to teammates, and he’s doing everything asked of him. ... He’ll be 17 his entire senior year. He’ll be 17 when he starts somebody’s college camp. He’s still growing.”

Sandolph said he likes the group he’s worked with this summer more than any since he’s played.

“I love it,” Sandolph proclaimed. “You can tell the difference around here. Everybody’s excited about the offense and the defense.

“You can tell we’re more into it. Everybody wants to get better. If we can start off with an early win, it’ll just grow.”

Changing attitudes, venue

St. James’ rebirth has taken place in the shadows of its long time stadium for perhaps the last time. A new stadium, to be built near La. 3127 and La. 20, will seat more than 3,800, including 1,100 on the home side.

The new stadium will feature a FieldTurf field and a two-level press-box. Construction bids will be awarded July 16 at a St. James Parish School Board meeting.

The road that will link the stadium and a planned new school campus to La. 3127 is being laid down, Jenkins said. Jenkins’ face lights up as his hand glides over stadium diagrams and schematics laid out on a table across from his desk.

“It’s going to happen,” Jenkins said. “The field (turf) is literally sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Georgia. Everything will be state-of-the-art. ... The parish has been great.”

Jenkins and former Dutchtown defensive coordinator Chris Daigle were both up for the St. James job. Once Jenkins was hired, he indirectly recruited Daigle.

No small feat, considering the Griffins’ success and Daigle coaching former Dutchtown standouts such as Eric Reid and Landon Collins.

“We had a lot of talent (at Dutchtown),” Daigle said. “We’ve got a lot of talent here. And they’re working hard. Their attitudes have been great.”

Rallying a community

During the spring game with Miller-McCoy Academy, players noticed more spectators in the stands than they could recall in previous years.

Players and coaches both said the community has shown signs of optimism and renewed interest.

Juwan Lumar, a senior defensive end, said the fact Jenkins comes across the Mississippi River from a historic rival was a topic at first, but not as big as the three rings earned there.

“Yeah, it was something we thought about,” Lumar said. “But we saw what he did over there, too. When you know your coach has already won, that does something. We want to win. ...We’re coming along. People are starting to see how hard we’re trying.”

Sandolph said he believes a quick start would mean much to player morale and confidence. Sandolph and other players mention the Sept. 6 season opener with river parish West St. John several times. The matchup has been a focal point for players during workouts.

Those workouts reflect the uptempo philosophy of the new coach. Players shuttle from one station to the next, with only the briefest pauses for liquids. The breaks are adequate, but brief. Grunts and yells ricochet off stadium bleachers and off weightroom walls.

On the track, Daigle implores players to properly execute and follow through exercise form as much as or more than finishing wind sprints. Jenkins whirls around the weight room, reminding them of ultimate team goals.

“They’re putting in the time and effort,” Jenkins said. “This is where it starts. We tell them, ‘This is where you build trust. In the fourth quarter, when the man next to you is tired and you’re tried, you’ll remember how tired you were together in the summer.’ ”