Keith Arrowood continues to make big plays and the Unicoi County football team continues to enjoy its best season in over a decade.
With their 40-19 win over Unaka, the Blue Devils reached five wins for the first time since 1999.
Arrowood, whose athletic ability and style of play has been compared to that of former Unicoi star Corey Headley, scored three touchdowns against the Rangers. He started the game with an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and later caught 64-yard and 24-yard touchdown passes from quarterback Lucas Hensley. He also set up a field goal with a 59-yard punt return.
It’s nothing different than the 6-1, 165-pound junior has done all season.
In game one, he scored a 65-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to put an exclamation point on Unicoi County’s first win at South Greene since 1991. Four weeks later, his interception return for a touchdown led the Blue Devils to their biggest win of the season, a 14-7 victory over archrival Happy Valley.
“Keith has had one of the most impressive all-around seasons I’ve seen in a long time,” Unicoi County head coach Jerad Huskins said. “He may be one of the most dynamic football players I’ve ever coached. He just makes huge plays every time you turn around. He will have a kick return for a touchdown, an interception return for a touchdown, a gigantic reception or a huge hit.”
Looking closely at the TSSAA playoff picture, Huskins believes the Blue Devils are assured of their first postseason bid since 2006. It is quite the reward for Huskins and his coaching staff. They struggled the first three seasons and had just a 6-24 record coming into this year.
Much like an NFL team getting short gains while being committed to the running game, Huskins said building a program can be ugly at times.
“Coach (Paul) Shelton, coach (Chris) Brown, my offensive and defensive coordinators, have been with me since I took over in 2009,” Huskins said. “When we took over, we made some long-term investments. We established some discipline, mandatory rules and work ethic. The program had been bad for so long and we knew it wasn’t going to turn around overnight. It’s been a hard road and when you invest in something, it’s like watching grass grow. It’s happening, but you can’t tell it all the time. It took some time, but it’s showing off now.”
After the Unaka win, Huskins was particularly pleased to see the reactions of seniors Jacob Sawyer and Jordan Berry — the only two players who have been with him and the Blue Devils staff for all four years.
“They came in with this coaching staff back in ’09 and they really endured some tough times,” Huskins said. “They overcame a lot. They were glowing after the game, and I was really happy for them.”
Seeing the program on an upswing, Huskins pointed out that 15 starters should return next season.
The good news is so many underclassmen are already battle-tested. When Hensley missed the first half of the season with an injury, backup quarterback Cody Jack Rogers led the Blue Devils to three wins.
Then, star running back Hunter Abbott was knocked out of the second half of the Happy Valley game. With time winding down and the game on the line, Phillip Franklin roared down the left sideline 46 yards for the winning touchdown.
“It’s been a team thing from our seven seniors to our 20 freshmen,” Huskins said. “On a 44-man, we’ve had two freshmen start the last two weeks and then Cody Jack as a sophomore stepping in and having those big wins as a quarterback. Even our scout-team guys, they’re coming in to work every day and are pushing the starters.
“It’s been a complete team season from a fine group of kids. That’s what we’ve built this program on. When you get the chance to step in and contribute, that’s what you do.”
The offensive and defensive lines are the perfect example of that. Senior Matthew Johnson has been called the anchor, while a freshman, Eric Arnett, has started the last two games at center.
In addition, the Blue Devils have been winning all the games they’re expected to win. Over the past two weeks against Sullivan East and Unaka, they’ve jumped out to big leads early with the games decided by halftime.
“The games that we feel confident we should win, we are winning,” Huskins said. “That’s where it starts. You have to learn to win, and then after you learn to win, you keep improving. Then, you start playing to win those upper-echelon games and playing with those conference-championship type of teams.”
Unicoi County faces one of those challenges this coming Friday night at Sullivan North. If Unicoi can defeat the Golden Raiders, it would guarantee the program’s first winning season since 1996.
“The kids have done something they haven’t done in a long time,” Huskins said. “They’ve beat the teams they’ve supposed to and now the step is to beat the teams you’re not supposed to.
“We really don’t have any pressure on us. It’s just up to us to perform and play at a high level against a good football team. Hopefully, we can do that and carry some momentum into the playoffs.”