A Walker Valley freshman running back heads around the corner during the first full-contact two-a-day practices on the Mustang practice field Monday. (Banner Photo: Patrick MacCoon)
Before the blink of an eye, the Friday night football lights will turn for Bradley County teams in 25 days as the boys of fall will look to give it their all.
For the first time this summer the sounds of pads popping filled the air with a new level of physicality added to the practice fields Monday.
The start of training camp was given more leeway than years past after the TSSAA now allows a ball on the field in the summer with pads on.
Kolten Gibson has the chance to set a new Southeast Tennessee touchdown record, as the senior defending Region 4-5A Player of the Year enters his final prep season with 84 total touchdowns (63 passing, 21 rushing).
With a defense that returns no starters at linebacker or defensive back, one would expect Gibson to need every bit of offense he can roar up with the weapons given.
The Mustangs are wasting no time this week as they began a week long practice schedule of grueling two-a-days, with the first practice going from 8-11 a.m. and 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
While expected star receiver Zeke Westfield sat out the first day of camp with fluid built up in his left knee, which he should have drained soon and be ready to go, it was Sam Clements who impressed in pads.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound target, who will play H-back (a mix of tight end and fullback), took two to three defenders to take him down as WV went full scrimmage mode. While the former lineman still is getting use to his new position, he could be a valuable target to move the chains and around the goal line.
Walker Valley’s most experience returns on the defensive line, where seniors Isiah Alston and Cody Duggan will make a ferocious combination.
Alston (6’2”, 280) recorded 82 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and four sacks last season, while Duggan (6’, 215) returns with the most tackles (104) and added 12 TFL and six sacks.
The Mustangs will be challenged defensively by their coaches this preseason and had to 3-up-downs for every missed tackle on day one. Toughening up in the secondary and in the middle will be the biggest key for this team before the regular season hits.
WV has its biggest freshman class this season and will have over 80 on its roster this season.
Only 25 days stand away from a Friday night kickoff between Walker Valley and Chattanooga Central at UTC’s Finley Stadium.
“It’s a feel of excitement just to get a feel for where you are at and what you’ve really got once you see everyone with pads on,” Cleveland’s third-year head coach Scott Cummings said of the first day of practice. “The competition is tougher and we hope to find some diamonds in the rough that we didn’t count on originally.”
With over 70 athletes on its roster, CHS went through back-to-back practices lasting from 3:30 to 7:45. Plenty of water breaks were allowed out in mid-day heat of the summer.
With the return of a beastly backfield including junior Micaleous Elder and senior Keegan Jones, who combined for 1,188 rushing yards (8.7 yards per carry) and 18 touchdowns in 2016, their prospects look even brighter for the near future.
The offensive line for the Blue Raiders looks to be stout this season and was on display in the “Big Cat” one-on-one drill on the first day of padded practice.
The highlight matchup was junior offensive lineman Alex Higgins against junior defensive lineman Caleb Flickner, which ended in a tie for the two big men.
“We are as big up front as I’ve ever seen,” Coach Cummings said. “Stavon Thomas at right guard is 6-foot-3, 315 pounds and can move. Alex Higgins (guard) is 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, Kevin Martinez (tackle) is 6-foot-1, 260 pounds and Austin Allen is 6-foot-2 and around 240 pounds. If we can get them in the right place our offense will really work.”
With the return of junior gunslinger Kellye Cawood, who played safety at South Pittsburg last season after playing at CHS his freshman season, the strong-armed quarterback will look to lead a new style offense.
The Blue Raiders plan to use their special running backs in a multitude of ways this season to get considerably more touches than the 153 Jones and Elder combined for last season. Cawood will also be capable of running the football as well.
For an offense that still averaged over 30 points per game in a 5-5 2016 season, which saw five quarterbacks play due to bizarre injuries, CHS could be looking at a stellar season if Cawood can remain on the sunny side healthwise.
“Our big thing this preseason is to focus on avoiding negative plays and finding every way to utilize our weapons,” Cummings said. “If we can do that we have the chance to be very special.”
Senior linebacker Chase Oliver has been vocal this preseason and looks to be a strong force in the middle for the Blue Raider defense, which has its best demeanor yet seen by Cummings.
Simply put, Bradley Central head coach Damon Floyd loves physicality.
The 12th year head coach for the Bears and former Chattanooga Moc safety expects a great level of toughness from his players. He even challenges some in drills himself.
However, as BCHS’ training camp boomed to a start Monday evening, it was a little bit more laid back than Floyd’s days as a player.
“When I played, even over the last 5-10 years, training camps have changed a lot,” Coach Floyd said. “Usually the firsts day of pads, you’d come out and do Oklahoma’s a ton and make it as tough as you can.
“But we know who can play and who can hit, so our thing is just trying to keep our players healthy through camp and be ready to go Game 1.”
After tying the program’s record for most wins (9) in the 21st century a season ago, hope is not all lost in the post Cole Copeland-era. Copeland set a Southeast Tennessee record with 106 total touchdowns over 32 starts.
The Bears, who have around 90 players, will hand over the reins of the offense to a second Standifer.
“You hate to lose a guy like Cole, but we are proud of what he accomplished while he was here,” Coach Floyd said.
“But now it’s Dylan’s (Standifer) turn just like when it was Cole’s turn after Dylan’s brother, Brett, left. We are excited about Dylan and the group he has to throw to.”
A diamond freshman has perhaps already emerged for Bradley as Tray Curry, just 13-years-old, is expected to be an instant playmaker as a 6-foot-3 wide receiver. He is the younger brother of basketball standout KK Curry, who averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds for Cleveland last season.
Sophomore Saylor Clark also has grown leaps and bounds and looks to be another strong option at receiver, along with standouts such as Lameric Tucker (94 catches, 1,500 yards, 16 TDs 2016), Nick Howell and Stephen Muhonen. Clark could also be a force on special teams.
“We found some studs in 7-on-7s already,” Coach Floyd said. “Tray is one of those guys and Saylor, who played quarterback for the freshman team last year, is one, too. We found out they can run and catch well, now we have to make sure they can hit with pads on consistently.”
Competing in a new Region 2-6A, along with the likes of McMinn County, Cleveland, Ooltewah, Maryville, William Blount and Heritage, Bradley has high hopes for another strong season in 2017.
“If the kids aren’t excited at this point they probably don’t need to be playing,” Coach Floyd said. “Day one is a lot different than day two, they will be tired but the true grinders will love it. We want to work on our fundamentals from here and stay healthy for Game 1 against Farragut (defending 5A state champions).”
Bradley will continue to practice from 6 p.m.-8:15 p.m. this week, perhaps with a Friday morning practice added before they take on a five-way scrimmage Saturday starting at 6 that will include: McMinn Central, East Ridge, Knox Catholic, Hardin Valley and Soddy-Daisy.
The Wildcats are already building for its week one renewed rivalry game with Copper Basin and they are doing so with plenty of scrimmages on schedule, mixed in with their training camps.
PCHS will travel to Sequoyah and Loudon for scrimmages, while they will host Sequatchie County (Tuesday, Aug. 1) and Walker Valley (Tuesday, Aug. 8).
“We were dragging a little bit today in the hot weather,” PCHS head coach Derrick Davis said. “First day in pads, though, so it is kind of expected. We are a little better than we have been in that past and we have to battle through this heat.”
After a 3-7 season last year, the Wildcats will look to fullback and safety Kendall Swemley to be a bulldog on both sides. However, he won’t be available until week one due to battling mononucleosis.
PCHS has a total of 60 kids on its roster, which also includes third-year starting quarterback Nate Waters. Wyatt Martin is expected to make a major impact at right tackle as well.
The Wildcats also return eight starters on defense, which includes Alex Pell who will start at linebacker and center.