Losing the likes of Willie Carmichael, B.J. Spradlin and Chaz Story didn’t keep Greeneville from repeating as Class 4A state champions in 2011, but replacing 10 starters on defense and six on offense will make the quest for a three-peat daunting.
Among those coach Caine Ballard must replace are lineman Terrell Rollins (Tennessee Tech) and defensive end/power back Jamel Hall (Mars Hill), who helped Greeneville outscore opponents 677-144 while going 14-1 in 2011.
The Greene Devils might take some lumps early – that was certainly the case in a season-opening 49-21 loss at Science Hill – but there is enough speed and strength and experience at quarterback for Ballard to cook up another lengthy postseason run.
Oddly enough, after seeing Greeneville battle back to within a touchdown after falling behind 28-7 at halftime, Ballard left Science Hill feeling better about his team in the most important way.
“I was very pleased,” Ballard said. “I didn’t know what kind of fight this football team had, but very excited with the start of the second half. We dug ourself a hole there in the first half and, you know, they fought coming out. And that’s a good sign and something that I think we can build on.”
Senior quarterback Tanner Stewart passed for more than 1,400 yards and tallied in excess of 2,200 yards total offense in 2011. Junior Zach Finchum will contribute, too. He won the Blue Ridge Conference jamboree skills competition with a throw of 54 yards, and threw a 49-yard TD pass to Hays Culbreth via a wideout double-pass against Science Hill.
Culbreth won the jamboree’s fastest back and opened the second half of the Science Hill game with a 66-yard kickoff return.
Junior running backs Quan Wilson and Xzavier Good have shown flashes. Good made an impressive move on a 17-yard TD run in the opener Friday, but Ballard wants to see similar effort Monday through Thursday.
“Good’s got to learn to give it to me in practice so I can trust him,” Ballard said. “You know, he’s a gamer. I don’t do gamers. I do weekly guys, and if he’ll give it to me during the week like he does on Friday, then we’ll be okay.”
Wideout Trevor Wright and tight end Tyrus Rollins (6-0, 230) should have productive seasons.
Senior left tackle Dunkan Gibson (6-1, 295) was a preseason all-state selection by Murphy Fair. Sophomore left guard Matthew Allen (6-3) is also 295 pounds, and senior center Ben Hopkins and right guard Brandon Jones each weigh 250. Senior right tackle Hunter Shelton is experienced.
Ballard is seeing the inexperience with two new starters up front. But he said defenses are overloading the box, and Greeneville must make teams pay to soften alignments.
Rollins is a solid linebacker in Greeneville’s 3-4 base. Safety Walker Troy, who was injured in the playoffs last year, is a returning starter at safety.
Many positions might be up for grabs on an overhauled defense that gave up 549 yards to Science Hill, which had a first-year starter at quarterback.
“This is a brutal start for us,” Ballard said. “And we knew coming in, the inexperience – I saw some fight that I didn’t know if we had or not, and I think we’re gonna be okay.”
Lincoln Taylor appears to be a solid kicker capable of making the vast majority of his kickoffs touchbacks. He replaces strong-legged Ben Ogle (Carson-Newman).
Carmichael transferred from Georgia Military Academy to NAIA school Reinhardt University (Waleska, Ga.), where former East Tennessee State All-Southern Conference defensive back Tony Tiller is an assistant.
“Willie’s excited to be there and doing well from what I understand,” Ballard said.
Spradlin and Story are sophomores for Greeneville alum Frankie DeBusk at Tusculum.
Shawn Jones has taken exception to some of his teams being sold short in the past, but the Rebels’ passionate veteran coach can understand why this year.
“This really is a rebuilding year,” Jones said. “I’ve never had to say that before.”
Indeed, South Greene must replace players who scored 46 of the 48 touchdowns last season. It must replace more than 90 percent of its rushing yards, most of which were produced by Cole Baxley’s 1,447-yard season.
Junior Tim Lightfoot is the leading returning rusher (nine carries, 70 yards, one TD). Preston Shuffler probably would be if his season wasn’t cut in half by an injury last season. Jones is also excited about the return of senior running back/receiver Matt Nicademus, who hasn’t played since his freshman year.
“He’s a good-looking kid,” Jones said. “The Lightfoot kid has really come on. We’re hoping he can surprise some people like Cole Baxley did last year. He looks like Cole with the way he runs the football.”
Junior Hunter Waddell (6-2, 170) is starting at quarterback. He rushed for 25 yards and completed a 13-yard pass in reserve duty last season.
“He’s real athletic,” Jones said. “It’s really his first year at quarterack and he’s just got to learn the offense and be able to take control of the huddle.”
Junior offensive lineman Daniel Painter (6-3, 280) has “shown a lot of promise” in the offseason, according to Jones. Senior Cody Brobeck (6-1, 180) is a four-year veteran, the only one on the roster.
Lightfoot, who will move from defensive end to linebacker, is the leading returning tackler. He tallied 57 stops last season.
Shuffler, Waddell and Manny Alcantara are returning starters. Waddell and Alcantara, who started as a safety as a freshman last season, each had two interceptions in 2011. Alcantara is moving to linebacker. Shuffler made 24 tackles in five games.
“When Shuffler gets there he’ll hit you,” Jones said. “Alcantara reads things well.”
South Greene lost 40-13 at home to Unicoi County in its opener.
“We’re just gonna play hard and see what happens this year,” Jones said. “We’re young … and we’re the smallest 2A school in the state.”
South Greene could be a Class 1A team in 2013, although they’ll almost certainly be a superior team by then.
Aaron Christian, 30, is taking over for Ben Murphy, who concluded a 10-year era with his best two seasons. The Black Knights were 8-4 last year, their best season since 1996 (8-3), and went 7-4 in 2010. Before that, Murphy had gone 16-64.
Of course, as Murphy said in advance of what turned out to be his final season, it’s easy to be a smarter coach with players like Julius Montgomery. He rushed for 1,995 yards and 21 TDs as a senior in 2011. He returned an interception 35 yards for a TD, returned two kicks for scores and caught a TD pass. He also forced a safety during his 158-point season, and among his 95 tackles on defense were 11 sacks.
“I mean, he was just a monster,” said Christian, who played quarterback on Fred Sorrells’ final Greeneville team in 1999. “Julius was hard to bring down.”
Christian’s cupboard isn’t empty. He returns senior Bryce Malone, who rushed for 990 yards and scored 14 TDs last season. Malone rushed 11 times for 171 yards and two TDs in a 33-12 win Friday against Unaka.
Tyler Coe, the fullback in the winged-T base that Christian will continue to use, broke his collarbone in the jamboree and is expected to be out 6-8 weeks. Senior tight end Nic Alexander (6-0, 210) has consequently moved to fullback, and scored three TDs in the opener. Sophomore Dillon Brown starts opposite Malone at wingback. Junior Nick Sandstrom should get substantial carries.
Christian is intrigued by the upside of junior quarterback Kris Hinkle, a dual threat with a good arm.
“He’s a really talented kid and he’s got a high football IQ,” Christian said. “I can teach him pass reads and he does a good job of picking up on it.”
Christian must replace three offensive linemen, including both guards, which are valuable pulling in the winged-T. Senior center Scott Crawford (6-0, 315) and senior tackle Roger Jennings (6-3, 300) are returning starters.
“I feel really good about the O-line,” Christian said. “Top to bottom, we may be a little better than last year.”
Greeneville transfer Obryan Cox has shown flashes at receiver, where speedy junior Rodney Greene will start.
Four-year starter Greg Bowman (6-2, 310) anchors the defensive line at tackle.
“To be that big, Greg has an excellent first three steps off the ball,” Christian said. “I mean, he gets off the ball nice, and he’s so big. You’l l see him in the backfield quite a bit.”
Alexander is the quarterback on defense. The Black Knights are adjusting from a 4-4 base to a 4-3.
Part of the philosophical adjustment is playing tight man-to-man coverage with the cornerbacks, and junior Trandon Ottinger has adapted smoothly. Another who could have an all-conference caliber season is inside senior linebacker Jackie Roberts (6-1, 225).
“I expect big things out of Jackie,” Christian said.
Christian doesn’t expect a big dropoff in the wake of Montgomery and company’s departures. The Black Knights expect to compete for the second spot in the league behind Greeneville.
Dalton Boles has left the building. Boles rushed for 2,604 yards while averaging 9.1 yards per carry in 11 games last season, and scored 30 TDs. He was also the Buffaloes second-leading tackler.
West Greene coach Joe Case often lauded Boles’ passion and talent, but August is no time for nostalgia.
“He’s at Tennessee Tech now,” said Case, who led the Buffaloes to a third straight 7-4 season in 2011, one which was capped by a hard-fought 21-6 loss to Austin-East in the playoffs.
Assuming the load in the backfield will be sophomore Nathan Morgan and junior Jonathan Padgett. Case said they weigh about 150 pounds apiece, but they’re fast.
“We’ve got two good backs in Jonathan Padgett and Nathan Morgan,” Case said. “Jonathan finished runner-up last year in the sectional 100 meters, and Nathan’s about as fast as he is.”
Austin Greenlee is starting at quarterback. Jeffrey Rhinehart transferred to Cloudland. Promising freshman Dylan Kirk got his feet wet when the outcome was decided in a season-opening 32-7 loss to Cherokee.
“We’re young at quarterback,” Case said. It’s kind of one of those things that happens. Austin’s pretty heady. He’s just got to mature and continue to learn to run the offense.”
Tight end Caleb Julian (6-2, 215) was productive in the passing game at Cherokee. So was Cameron Key.
Right tackle Jaylynn Kesterson, a preseason all-state Murphy Fair selection, heads an offensive line that must replace three starters. Dylan Carter will start at right guard and Billy Chandler is the center. Tommy Lawson and Bayless Kinser will rotate at left guard, and Bryar Wilson, Dylan Arwood and Austin Long are all expected to play at left tackle.
Outside linebackers Kesterson and Julian are expected to excel on defense. Kesterson made 65 tackles in 2011.
James Marshall and Key are experienced linebackers. Freshman Dakota Trantham, who averaged 40 yards a punt against Cherokee, has a bright future, if not a present, at linebacker, too.
“We don’t want to play a whole lot of freshmen, but if he gets a little more experience he’s probably gonna be out there full-time for us,” Case said. “He’s got that much ability. He’s laid some wood in scrimmages, and coaches look at him and say, ‘Gosh coach, what grade’s he in?’ … He’s got a little bit of explosion when he makes contact.”
Tyler Laws and Volunteer transfer Chase Lawson are capable safeties. Cornerback Justin Pinkston started last year as a sophomore.
The promising freshmen class includes kicker Brock Shelton, deep kicker Trevor Wilson and Kirk, who, in addition to being the backup quarterback, will play nickel back on defense.
Despite the losses of Boles, Rhinehart and quality players such as Heath Starnes, Matthew Hinkle and Jeremy Metcalf, Case says he won’t be satisfied with anything less than the standard that’s been set the past several years.
“The goal should be going farther than we’ve been before,” he said. “We scrimmaged (Sullivan) North early in the season … and we played with them pretty good. Now, we’ve got a tough schedule early with three pretty big games for our size school. But I see a bright future for this group.”
David Crockett alumnus Josh Edens works in Baileyton, home of Daniel Boone Truck Stop, where he’s pioneering success with North Greene football.
Just two years removed from a long tradition as regional doormat, the Huskies went 6-5 and made the playoffs during Edens’ second season in 2011. Maintaining their “edge” with a “humbled confidence” is critical for sustaining progress, Edens says.
Seniors Mason Early and D.J. Triplett will shoulder much of the load in the backfield. Early rushed for 727 yards and five touchdowns last season, and had 127 receiving yards and a TD – mostly from the slot when the Huskies go to a spread formation. Early will also play defensive end.
“Mason is an athletic kid that can do a lot of things for you,” Edens said.
Triplett, also a running back/slot receiver, missed five games after getting injured in the jamboree last season. He did catch two passes for 43 yards and a TD.
Triplett and fellow senior linebacker David Triantas (96 tackles) also assume the leadership role linebacker Zach Britton had while making 99 tackles as a senior last year. Britton was the quarterback of the defense. He adeptly read offensive calls and aligned the defense, something Edens said will be done by committee this year.
“Zach leaves big shoes to fill,” Edens said. “But D.J.’s probably more athletic than Zach was and gets to the ball a little quicker.”
Triantas is a two-time all-conference selection at middle linebacker. Eager to hit someone, Triantas won the team award for hardest hitter last season. Now, if the aggression can be tempered so that he doesn’t bite on as many fakes.
“David Triantas only knows one speed, and that’s full throttle,” Edens said. “But he’s got a little bit of a brake pedal that he can pump occasionally now, if you can talk him into it. When David gets to somebody, he’s a finisher.”
Senior Tanner O’Laughlin will play quarterback. He started as a freshman, split time as a sophomore and backed up Chance Marr last year. He was 8 of 23 for 212 yards, two TDs and four interceptions last year.
The offensive line is anchored by tackle Ethan Dotson, a four-starter, and junior returning starters Tanner Collins and Thomas Davis. Sophomores who will start are Luke White and Joseph Willett. Edens saids the O-line is stronger and more athletic, but won’t necessarily be better initially due to the lost leadership and experience of the departed Dale Lynch and T.J. Jones.
Cody Coleman is expected to be the Huskies’ top deep threat receiver, and is one of the hardest hitters on the team from his free safety position.
“Cody’s covers a lot of a ground in a hurry … and he’s not a free safety who’s afraid to get involved in the run game,” Edens said. “Cody would rather hit the receiver than pick the ball, and it’s hard to be upset with a kid like that.”
Dakoda Laughlin (6-1, 225) is the premier interior defensive lineman. He’ll also play tight end.
“Dakoda has probably got as good a motor as anybody we have on defense,” Edens said. “He’s a tough kid to block, a pretty athletic kid.”
Edens is proud of how his players have transformed the program. So is the community. Edens said there were two road games last year where the Huskies had more fans the the home team. Smokin’ Hot Barbecue approached him in the offseason about giving a weekly plaque to offensive and defensive players of the game, and hosting them and their families each week for a dinner.
The Huskies hope to keep hogging more victories too, and Edens believes any slippage will spur some flash-in-the-pan skepticism.
“You know, 6-4 is great – the best season in school history,” Edens said. “Why not go 7-3 or 8-2. … We’re looking for validation.”