NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Kevin Mawae admitted being nervous in his Lipscomb Academy coaching debut but is confident his defense can match up with Saraland Friday night. (Photo courtesy of Lipscomb Academy)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Kevin Mawae got his first loss as a head coach out of the way last week and is ready to walk a more familiar path, which happens to go through Saraland Friday night.
“I’m 0-1 as a head coach right now and that’s not very fun but no one is perfect,” Mawae said after a 35-10 loss to IMG Academy in his Lipscomb Academy head coaching debut last week. “There’s no coach who went undefeated his entire career, so we’ll learn from it as a team and get back at it.”
Mawae brings the two-time defending Division II-AA Tennessee state champion Mustangs to The Land for a 7 p.m. nationally televised game on ESPN against the defending Class 6A state champion Spartans, who are playing their season opener.
Lipscomb, which fell from No. 18 to No. 25 in this week’s MaxPreps national poll, had a 21-game winning streak broken in the loss to IMG and Mawae conceded his team — while it has at least five Division I prospects — made too many mistakes to beat a team of the Ascenders’ caliber.
“One of my kids told me, ‘Coach, we’re playing against a bunch of grown men out there,’” Mawae said this week. “We might have had two or three guys who looked like them. But we didn’t play well enough to win. We hurt ourselves. We’ve got a lot of work to do. The big thing is our guys were disappointed but not discouraged. There is a difference. You play IMG, you give them your best shot.”
Mawae, 52, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019 and was an All-SEC and All-American offensive lineman at LSU, said such decorations mean little in coaching.
“Being a Hall of Famer doesn’t give me any credence for being a great coach,” he said. “I was nervous. If you don’t have any jitters, it’s not that important to you. Coaching is different from playing. I wondered, ‘Will I make the right call?’ But we felt good about the operation of the game.”
Mawae is also happy to have played a game, although he didn’t say if it gives the Mustangs an advantage over Saraland.
“Nothing compares to kicking off under the lights,” he said. “The IMG game was the biggest game this campus has ever had. We had 5,000 or 6,000 people. It was a nationally ranked team coming in here. It wasn’t too big for our guys.”
Mawae feels good about the adjustments being made in preparation for the Spartans.
“Saraland has a great program,” Mawae said. “Coach (Jeff) Kelly has got them on a roll for a long time. They’ve got talent. Ryan (Williams) is one of the top players in the country. He’s a phenomenal player. Then there’s (Santae) McWilliams and (Dillon) Alfred. They do a good job of spreading the field, then running underneath and getting into space. It’s a big challenge. But we’ve got talent on our defensive back end that will give us a good matchup.”
Mawae said four-star cornerback Kaleb Beasley (5-11, 170 senior), the state’s No. 1 prospect who has committed to Tennessee, is looking forward to locking up with Williams, the No. 1 player in Alabama.
“Kaleb is very competitive and he knows what he’s facing,” Mawae said. “There will be times we will solo him up. We’re excited to see that matchup. Other times, we’ll have different things to scheme guys up.”
Lipscomb allowed three big plays to IMG but Mawae said that’s not a bad omen against the Spartans’ elite skill players.
“We’ll make good adjustments,” he said. “They weren’t physical issues, they were mental lapses. We had penalties. We had clock issues. You have to do your job. When you play good teams, it boils down to not making mistakes.
“I thought we played well defensively except for the three big plays. I think it was three plays for 100 yards. They broke containment on one, there was a miscommunication on another where our guys didn’t get the play and we had a guy out of the gap on the other. We did play fast and with confidence.”
But the offense and four-star quarterback Deuce Knight, who transferred from George County High in Lucedale, Miss., late this summer, struggled against the Ascenders’ pressure.
“Offensively, it was tough,” Mawae said. “Their defensive line is really good. We were outmatched up front. To have held off their pass rush the amount we did was good. Deuce did a great job standing in the pocket and he took some hits.”
The 6-foot-5 Knight, ranked the No. 4 quarterback prospect nationally in the 2025 class, was 26-of-41 passing for 259 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
The old saying that a well-coached team improves most dramatically between its opener and the second game gives Mawae cause for optimism.
“I hope so,” he laughingly said. “That’s the second time someone has told me that. The first time, it was from an older coach with wisdom. We want to win. But the biggest thing is winning the state championship for us, as it is for Saraland. We want to be running on all cylinders when we get to region play.”