Blue Devils riding high after homecoming romp

Jeff Birchfield • Sep 22, 2019 at 10:00 AM

After stumbling out of the gate, the Unicoi County football team appears to have solid footing.

The Blue Devils (3-2) have scored 65 points in two of their last three games, including a 65-13 blowout win over Claiborne on Friday’s homecoming night. The previous Friday, the Blue Devils defeated then-unbeaten Happy Valley 35-0 for their first win in the rivalry since 2013.

It is the kind of effort expected at the beginning of the season when the Blue Devils were picked to win Region 1-3A.

“We felt like we had a lot of talent back and a lot of different pieces to be successful,” Unicoi County coach Drew Rice said. “The first two weeks, we didn’t play very well for whatever reason. That’s not taking anything away from South Greene and Hampton because they’re two good football teams.

“We moved some guys around since then, like putting Brock (Thompson) on defense. We’ve tried to be a little more aggressive and it’s worked for us. It has been like two different teams.”

Thompson, the starting quarterback, was a spectator when the defense was on the field. Rice wanted to take advantage of his athleticism so he moved him to safety, which also allowed Kody Lewis to move up to linebacker.

Playing both ways hasn’t hurt Thompson’s offensive performance. He completed 5 of 6 passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns on Friday night.

After setting the school’s single-season rushing record in 2018, Lewis garnered most of the preseason attention. He showed why there was so much hype with 102 yards and three touchdowns on just eight carries Friday night. Overall, the Blue Devils piled up 310 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

Jordan Bridges had a 38-yard touchdown run and also made a tackle in the end zone for a safety. Lane Garland and Richie Laughren added touchdown runs of 5 and 6 yards, respectively.

In addition, Thompson connected with Evan Huff and L.J. Mitchell on touchdown passes of 45 and 22 yards, while Caleb Pelaez had a 72-yard kickoff return for another score.

One difference has been the improved play of the offensive line. It’s the unit Rice coaches and he made some changes after the first couple of games.

Unicoi County cut loose in its third game, a 65-6 demolition of North Greene, before the impressive showing against Happy Valley. Lewis had 172 rushing yards and Diego Diaz finished with 169 yards against a Warrior defense that has given up less than nine points per game in its other four contests.

The Blue Devils’ starting offensive line includes Michael Harrington, a three-year starter at left tackle, and Roby Lemmon, a right tackle Lewis often runs behind. Center Nick Farnor, left guard Dakota Bell and right guard Rodrigo Castellon also have gotten a good push at the line of scrimmage.

“The first couple of games, I wasn’t happy how those guys blocked,” Rice said. “Since then, we’ve been lights out. We’re not real big on the line, but we’ve got some strong kids. It’s the same on our defensive line, causing disruptions and playing real aggressive.”

The staff made some changes with the defensive schemes, allowing linemen Zhante Breedlove, Castellon and Mitchell to get pressure up front and linebackers like Isaiah Smith, Lemmon, Lewis and Garland to flourish. When Rice points to the biggest factors for the turnaround, he credits the team’s mentality and maturity.

“Our guys knew we were better than we played the first couple of weeks,” Rice said. “To their credit, they’ve shown up and worked every single day. All of these guys played last year and they know there are ups and downs. We’ve been mature enough to handle it well and I’m proud of them.”

Unicoi County will play at Sullivan East on Friday.

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