Austin Hensley is a very good basketball player, but a different sport holds first place for him.
“Football has always been my favorite sport,” said the Unicoi County senior. “But my mom didn’t really like it that much. She didn’t want me to get hurt.”
So Hensley stayed in the gym during his freshman and sophomore years. But last season he decided it was time to give high school football a try.
“I started playing football when I was seven years old,” said Hensley. “My dad always wanted me to play. Before my junior year, I saw how the coaching staff handled everybody and I thought I could be a good part of it.”
And the 6-4, 175-pound athlete came in with a plan. He wanted to run the offense.
“I thought I could be a pretty decent quarterback,” said Hensley. “I told coach (Jerad) Huskins that’s where I wanted to play.”
Experience was lacking. Hensley had been a fullback during his football days as a youngster.
“I played every year until my freshman year, and I was normally running the ball,” said Hensley. “But I always used to go out and throw with my dad.”
Despite the lack of game snaps, Hensley hit the ground running last season — or perhaps better said, hit the ground passing.
“It was surprising at first,” said Hensley. “I didn’t really expect to do that good, but I started off pretty good in the first game of the season.”
By season’s end, Hensley had thrown for over 1,700 yards. That set him up nicely for his senior season, which begins Friday night at Gentry Stadium in Erwin against South Greene.
Actually the season perhaps began with Friday’s Three Rivers Conference jamboree win over Sullivan North.
“I thought it was a very important step for us,” said Hensley, who was 7 of 8 passing for 85 yards in the one-quarter scrimmage. “It was just us showing the county and the conference that we are here to play instead of backing down.”
Leadership is part of the quarterback role, and Huskins said Hensley has grown in all areas of the game.
“He has matured into a very solid pro-style quarterback,” said Huskins. “He’s learning how to go through progressions, read defenses and pick up blitzes. And he’s turning into a leader. He’s a player we are very proud to have on our team.”
Hensley said winning is at the forefront of the picture this season.
“Wins are the biggest thing,” he said. “It’s all about wins in football. My goal is to make it to the playoffs.
“I think we’ve got high expectations around the whole team. We know Blue Devils’ fans have done so much for us, getting new equipment.”
The talent is there to succeed, Hensley said.
“We have an offensive line that works hard every day,” he said. “We have two very good running backs who work hard every down, and receivers who catch the ball.”
Beating South Greene would be a big step in the right direction as far as confidence goes.
“You always want to jump off to a fast start,” said Hensley. “If we get a win in the first game, it will be a real boost for our confidence.”
When football season is over, Hensley is expected to be the key man on a basketball team with state tournament dreams. Last year’s season ended a game short, mainly because Hensley went down with an injury just before halftime in a game the Blue Devils were dominating.
“I tore my tendon and had a high ankle sprain,” said Hensley. “The doctor said it will never be fully 100 percent healed for the rest of my life. But it feels fine. It doesn’t hurt at all.”
Head basketball coach John English said Hensley has been a big factor in Blue Devils’ athletics.
“He has had a tremendous impact in football and basketball,” said English. “I think the leadership he showed in football has bled over to basketball.
“And I don’t think the impact in basketball was any more evident than in the substate game.”
After a very strong summer, Hensley said the Blue Devils aren’t going to sell themselves short for their goals in basketball.
“Our expectations are going to the state, and hopefully winning it,” he said. “Everybody we have is good.”
After high school, Hensley said he’s weighing his options for football or basketball.
“I’m still keeping the door open,” he said. “Right now, King College has talked to me about basketball.”
Hensley said he will keep tabs on the Blue Devils’ program even after he graduates. That’s because younger brother Lucas plays football, basketball and baseball.
“If he keeps working hard, he should be a good athlete,” said Hensley. “I hope he does good.”
Through it all, family has been important. Hensley said his dad and granddad have been the biggest influences on his athletic career.
“They’ve just always been there for me,” he said. “Whether I needed help with a jump shot or whatever, they’ve always done as much as they can do to help.”