Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

August 28, 2012

Hairston a fixture on Lions’ O-line

ATHENS — Mitch Hairston was there for the beginning of Concord University’s football turnaround, and now the four-year starter on the offensive line is entering his final season as a Mountain Lion.

“The intensity is there,” he said during an interview at Callaghan Stadium in Athens. “We haven’t settled. Every year, we grow more. We’ve done a good job with that.”

To say the offensive line unit was thin in the spring of 2009 would be an understatement. Mike Kellar had just taken over as head coach after Greg Quick resigned.

One of Kellar’s first hires was Mingo County native Garin Justice, a former starting tackle for West Virginia University, to be the offensive line coach and strength coach.

That spring there were five linemen to fill the five positions. The annual spring game ended a bit early, Kellar admitted, to keep from exhausting the offensive front.

Hairston said, “Mentally, coming in, you just knew you had to play through a lot of pain, beyond what you thought you could endure. That really built a mental toughness. You had to play like you were not expecting to get hurt.”

Successful college football programs redshirted freshmen linemen, and starting positions went to juniors or seniors who had had time to build up their strength and to learn the finer points of line play within an established collegiate system.

Kellar knew that. He also knew that he’d have to start freshmen. Hairston was one of those.

Hairston said, “We were at the point where all of us had to know every single [line] position, because you might have to play anywhere.”

Now, four years later, Hairston is a member of the West Virginia Conference football champions, and last saw action in the NCAA Division II playoffs in November.

This month, Concord received nine points in the top 25 preseason football poll of the American Football Coaches Association, after the Mountain Lions posted records of 6-5 in 2009, 8-3 in 2010 and 7-4 last year.

Hairston was named second-team all-conference last fall, after being an honorable mention selection in his first two years.

Contrasting this year’s corps of linemen with 2009, Hairston said, “It’s a big difference. Over the years, we’ve gained a lot on the line. This year, we’re a little more athletic, but we still have the tenacity.”

“We have the freshman class that came in last year. They’re a very talented class, and some of those guys are playing now.

“The freshman class this year, they can do a lot of big things. It just helps to have that many good offensive linemen, so you don’t have to take all the reps ... . You have some guys who can give you a break.”

“I know we only had five to eight [offensive] linemen during the springtime, and last year we had to take every single rep. I mean, it got you in shape, but at the same time, it killed your body.

“It also made us better in the offensive line. We definitely knew we had to push each other, for us to get better. Even though it was hard, we still got through it.”

Hairston, a Clarksburg resident, remembered his reaction when Kellar left Concord to return to the football staff at California (Pa.) late in 2010. Teammates were shocked about the departure and worried about the prospect of working foe a new set of coaches.

Then came word that Justice had been elevated to head coach as well as offensive line coach.

Hairston said, “I was ecstatic, because I knew my personal coach was coming back, and he was going to be THE coach. So it wasn’t any different for me, because I’d been with him every year.”

“I’ve known Coach Kellar since I was a freshman in high school, because my high school coach coached him. So I was really close to him, and when he left, I was a little down. But knowing Coach Justice was going to be back, it was a relief ... .”

“In other programs, you might have a coach [move on and] the whole coaching staff just leaves and you’ve got to start fresh. But we were fortunate, here, to keep him. He knows what he’s talking about, and he puts everybody in a position to do well — and to do right.”

The coaching approach is different between the two, but the results show there’s more than one way to run a college football program.

Hairston said, “Coach Kellar’s more laid-back, and [Justice is] more stay-with-it. Education is definitely first in this program. He wants you to do right, because [there’s] a definite correlation, if you do right off the field, you’re going to want to do right on the field.

“In a way, he’s more strict [than Kellar was], but he cares about every single player, and he wants every single player to be their best, on and off the field.”

The first on-field test of this year’s Mountain Lions takes place Saturday evening in Athens against Lenoir-Rhyne University. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

— Contact Tom Bone at

tbone@bdtonline.com

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