published Sunday, May 12th, 2013

Prep spring football has varied purposes

While traditional spring sports such as baseball, softball and track are winding down, the Southern tradition of spring football practice is just kicking off at many tri-state area schools. And while spring football practice typically focuses on getting younger players adjusted to the physical play of the varsity level, the programs that underwent coaching changes — Brainerd, North Jackson, Ooltewah, Rhea County, Sequatchie County, Soddy-Daisy and South Pittsburg — are playing catch-up to rival schools.

Here’s a look at what Chattanooga-area programs are working on.

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    Baylor School quarterback Nick Tiano, No. 14, looks for an open player against Soddy-Daisy.
    Photo by Staff File Photo.
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Baylor: Only four defensive starters return for the Red Raiders, including one lineman and one safety, so finding help up front and in the secondary is a top priority.

Other areas are pretty well set now, including offensive line, where all but one starter returns. Running back George Porter is also back and junior Nick Tiano will take all the first-team snaps at quarterback since Michael O’Connor transferred to IMG Academy in Florida.

The kicking game also is in great shape with last year’s Mr. Football award winner Rafael Gaglianone, a senior who is a consensus national top-five kicking prospect. Oklahoma, Ohio State and Tennessee have all been on campus this spring to watch Gaglianone kick, and LSU has invited him to compete at its kicking camp.

“I think he will get offers from those schools and a lot more,” Baylor coach Phil Massey said. “He’s gone to enough camps to get noticed nationally, and it will just be a matter of where he wants to go.

“Aside from having so many holes on defense, we really want to get Nick comfortable working with our receivers and also find a backup for him at quarterback. We feel pretty good about where we are and the potential of a lot of the young guys.”

Bledsoe County: One thing is for sure — whoever carries the ball for the Warriors will get to run behind one of the area’s most solid offensive lines. Junior Dalton Swanger (6-foot-3, 280) has won two regional weightlifting competitions this spring and is already a solid prospect.

“I’m very impressed with the strength and attitude of our linemen on both sides,” coach Jason Reel said. This is probably the strongest and best overall group we’ve had in more than four years. We’ve got some real big, strong kids.”

Receiver Nathaniel Collins (6-4, 180) is another junior who is moving up the list of prospects in Tennessee. Along with Connor Boynton, Derrick Bice and Bradley Smith, Bledsoe has an impressive list of returning skill position players as well.

“Dalton Swanger and Nathaniel Collins will be the biggest college prospects we’ve had here in a long, long time, if they continue to work,” Reel said.

Boyd-Buchanan: With several key players still involved in spring sports, including four-year starting quarterback Jim Cardwell, the Buccaneers will use the next two weeks to get the 14 rising freshmen acclimated.

“That’s a big reason we even have spring practice, just to get the freshmen in the mix and see who might be able to help us,” coach Grant Reynolds said.

The Bucs must find replacements for the three linemen they’re losing to graduation and allow backup quarterback Cooper Hodge the chance to take snaps as the team adjusts to using more no-huddle. Junior Calvin Conn (6-0. 215) and sophomore Eli Legg (5-11, 220) will help anchor the line and senior Chris Lyon (6-2, 200), a transfer who sat out last season until the playoffs began, likely will play both receiver and safety.

Former Brainerd coach Stanley Jackson, whose son Austin is in the mix at running back, has joined the staff. The younger Jackson, a rising junior, is one of four players who will get carries this spring as coaches try to determine a depth chart at running back. Senior Cameron Pope and sophomores E.J. Matthews and Jake Harden also will get carries.

Bradley Central: Since much of the summer is spent in passing leagues, the Bears are using the spring to concentrate on two things — running the ball and stopping the run.

Senior Logan Fetzner, who burst onto the area scene last year with a 235-yard season debut, is back to take most of the carries, but coaches are looking for others to take some of the load off and will need to find three new starters in the offensive line.

There will be a five-man battle to take the starting quarterback job, none of whom have much experience since Bryce Copeland was a four-year starter who rarely came off the field. One of the bigger changes is Eduardo Trevino (5-11, 240), an all-star defensive lineman last year, moving to middle linebacker.

“He’s still relatively new to the game, so we had him at defensive end because it’s an easy position to pick up,” Bears coach Damon Floyd said. “But with his strength and ability to get to the ball, we need him to be the guy making plays from sideline to sideline for us.”

Brainerd: Several attempts to reach new coach Bryan Gwyn were unsuccessful.

Calhoun: The Georgia Class AA runner-up ends its spring tuneup Monday, and according to coach Hal Lamb the offense has been crisp under the direction of senior-to-be quarterback Fields Chapman. Chapman served as Taylor Lamb’s understudy the past two seasons and will have no problem directing the team’s complex spread offense.

“We’ve got a good group of quarterbacks and Fields is next in line,” Coach Lamb said. “He’s had a real good spring, and being around this offense he knows where to go with the ball.”

Lamb also mentioned returning running back/receiver Tydus Curtis and defensive back Will Conley as having strong spring workouts.

Central: Three players are competing for the starting quarterback job — Bryan Billingsley, Scout Morgan and Devin Swafford — and they bring different skill sets. Morgan is a prototypical pocket passer, Billingsley is the more athletic and Swafford can run the option better than the other two. Every other skill position player is back, including Kevin McKenzie, who coaches feel can become one of the city’s top running backs.

The offensive line will average 6-2, 265, including junior tight end Brandon Lewis (6-7, 220), and former Hixson and Meigs County coach Stan Eller is now Central’s offensive line coach. The Purple Pounders have only eight seniors on a roster of 55 this spring and 24 juniors. One senior who will be counted on heavily is linebacker Sean Montgomery.

“What I’m excited about is that we don’t have any discipline issues anymore,” Central coach John Allen said. “We’ve dismissed a few the last couple of years, but now we’re at a point where I know I can count on all the kids with us now. That’s a huge weight off.”

Chattanooga Christian: Offense was not a problem last year as the Chargers averaged scoring 30 points per game, but the defense struggled, giving up 32 points per game. So that side of the ball will be the focus when the team begins practice next week. CCS is graduating 13 seniors and five were starters on defense, so that’s another reason for the added attention to that side of the ball.

The Chargers will have just five seniors on the roster this fall, but two of those — Tucker Youngblood and Austin Mansell — will be counted on as team leaders. Youngblood is moving from cornerback to safety, and Mansell is a fixture at outside linebacker. The junior class will be the heart of the team, and 10 players from that group were starters last season as sophomores.

Christian Heritage: The Lions, who will be entering their second year of play in the GHSA, began practice last week. Coach Preston Poag said the period will be spent working with a number of younger players who will be making their varsity debuts.

“We know what the guys coming back can do,” he said. “We want to see how the young guys can help us. We have a bunch of new guys in the program.”

Cleveland: Coach Ron Crawford’s spring work schedule for the Blue Raiders is simple.

“We’re going to focus most of our attention on running the football and stopping the run,” Crawford said. “Basically, we’re just going to be very physical this spring. We’ll have contact on a daily basis in every drill and find out who likes to hit. We have a long way to go to get to where I want us to be.”

That physical style will start up front, and Cleveland returns most of its linemen from last season on both sides. Included is senior Robert McMahan, who played at 305 pounds last season but has trimmed down to 270 and is showing quicker movement. It will be difficult to recognize just how much depth there is in the skill positions since more than 20 players are involved in other spring sports. One known commodity is quarterback Austin Herink (6-3, 212), who is being recruited by Mississippi State, Duke, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama.

“He’s a big-time player,” Crawford said of Herink. “I’m a little surprised somebody hasn’t already offered him [a scholarship], but that’s just a matter of time because every camp he goes to he impresses the coaches.”

Coahulla Creek: Any success the Colts’ second season of varsity play will see hinges on continued development of a strong corps of young players. One of coach Jared Hamlin’s top priorities this spring is to find a replacement for star defensive tackle Cordarius Tarver, a 2012 all-region pick who was the focus of every opposing team’s blocking.

The Colts return one of the area’s top defensive playmakers in cornerback Erick Dominguez, who recorded seven interceptions last season.

Dade County: The Wolverines begin practice Monday in trying to transition the team into summer workouts. Coach Bradley Warren, entering his sixth season, believes the solid youth in his program will begin to show results on the varsity level this season.

“We’re seeing some production out of our younger kids, who have been 44-3 since the seventh grade,” said Warren, who mentioned potential new starters such as lineman Reid Hulgan, tight end/defensive end Roy McMahan, fullback Daniel Pickering and safety Austin Forester. “We should be a physical team and we’re going to keep working on running the ball and hitting teams with play-action.”

Dalton: Third-year coach Matt Land, whose team hit the practice field this week, has several standouts returning next season, including linebacker Eder Mora, lineman Jake Roberts and tailback Kelvis Rhodes, but he insists no positions are set in stone.

“Things are going well so far,” said Land, who must replace eight offensive starters. “The big thing is to find some depth. On the surface we have few starting positions to fill, but the way we approach it we have no returning starters. I want the 22 best to start, so everybody is playing to earn their position.”

The obvious key battle this spring is at quarterback, where three-year starter Cole Calfee has to be replaced. According to Land, though, the position he’s most concerned about is center, as all-star three-year starter B.J. Rowland graduated.

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    East Hamilton's Tre Herndon (21) plows into Signal Mountain's J.R. Wilson (15).
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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East Hamilton: No area school will have more college scouts stopping by than the one on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road, where no fewer than six rising seniors are being recruited. Defensive back Tre Herndon (6-0, 175) and tight end Bailey Lenoir (6-4, 235) top the list with Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Middle Tennessee State, Northern Illinois and Furman among the schools heavily recruiting them. Linebacker Austin Gatewood (6-0, 210) has Cincinnati, Memphis, MTSU and UT-Chattanooga showing plenty of interest, while quarterback Hunter Moore (6-0, 210) and offensive lineman Cordell Sands (6-5, 340) also are drawing interest from multiple colleges. A newcomer to the college recruiting list is lineman Jordan Wallace (6-6, 295), who gained enough game experience last year to pique recruiters’ curiosity with his size, strength and mobility.

A trio of juniors — Matt Milita (5-9, 165), Martez Durrah (6-0, 170) and Delandis Massengill (5-9, 175) — will give the Hurricanes a solid committee of running backs.

“We’ve got quite a few kids still competing in other sports right now, which is good because it will give us a chance to look at some younger guys,” Hurricanes coach Ted Gatewood said. “There are high expectations here now, but we came up short of where we wanted to be last year, so we have to ratchet up the intensity all over.”

East Ridge: Hoping to finish before so many players got involved in other spring sports, the Pioneers wrapped up spring drills before the second week in March. With 16 returning starters, coaches were able to focus on installing more of a passing game for quarterback JoJo Tillery and a whole new defense, switching to a 4-2-5 under new coordinator Mark Teague, who came from Marion, Ark.

“With the athletes we have, the scheme just fits us a lot better,” Pioneers coach Tracy Malone said. “We’ve had tremendous dedication to the weight room ever since last season ended.”

Sprinter Nakota Culver will use his speed at fullback and on the defensive line, and linebacker Mike Knox has had an impressive offseason according to Malone. Tight end/defensive end C.J. Baker (6-6, 230) will be a major college prospect if his grades continue to improve, and sophomore tailback Dominique Millener (5-6, 170) has a chance to become a special weapon.

“He can flat-out fly,” Malone said of Millener. “He can catch lightning, he’s so quick. We’re excited to get the ball in his hands a lot.”

Gordon Central: New coach David Humphreys, the team’s offensive coordinator last season under new LaFayette coach Chad Fisher, must find replacements for one of the best senior classes in school history, in addition to Chandler Curtis, an imposing offensive threat who has transferred to Calhoun.

Curtis’ defection means nearly all of the team’s offensive production needs to be replaced, starting with all-star quarterback M.J. Reynolds and receiver Tyshaun Clemmons.

Gordon Lee: The extended run of the baseball team has forced the Trojans to back up their workouts. They started this past Wednesday, but only a little more than 30 players participated. As a result, coach Charlie Wiggins is using the time to work on the basics with his younger players.

“We’ve got to replace 15 seniors, which is obviously our priority,” he said. “We’re just trying to evaluate the kids on who can help us right away while also trying to determine depth. We’re spending these practices re-teaching some things to our younger kids.”

Wiggins said the strength of his team offensively should be up front, where four of five starters return, but skill-position depth will be at a minimum.

Grace Academy: Breaking in new quarterback Isaac Spencer (6-0, 175) is a primary focus, as the Golden Eagles switch from a running style athlete at the position to a more traditional pocket passer. Grace is graduating nine players from last season but has 11 rising seniors, a large group for the small school.

“We have pretty good experience coming back actually, but no real depth,” Grace coach Bob Ateca said. “We’re tweaking the offense and we have quite a few kids still involved in other sports or just joining us, so we have a lot to work on. Isaac has played outside linebacker, so he’s not afraid of contact, but he’s not as much of a running threat as we’ve had before.”

Grundy County: It’s a matter of finding the right man for the right position on defense for the Yellow Jackets. With several starting positions up for grabs, a young group on the defensive side and several key offensive players involved in spring sports, coaches are getting a look at numerous underclassmen.

Fullback/inside linebacker Michael Nolan (5-11, 230) is a four-year starter and Hayden Holland (5-11, 185) is back at receiver after getting familiar with quarterback as a backup for the first part of spring. Junior Eldon Posey (6-0, 260), who started at left guard last year, is moving to the right side, and junior Terrince Bramhall (6-3, 230) is working his way into becoming a solid college prospect.

Heritage: The Generals, according to coach Tim James, have 80 sophomores through 2013-14 seniors and 43 freshmen signed up for workouts, which begin Monday. James and his staff will be busy installing a new defense featuring an even front and tweaking the offense to be more spread-oriented to take advantage of sophomore quarterback Dylan Buice.

“It’s his job to lose right now,” James said. “The guys are a little excited about the offense, and athlete-wise we’re better suited for it. It should also help our running game, where we expect big things from [tailback] Seth Hickman. One strength will be our receiving corps, where we’ve got one guy under 6-2.”

That group includes Christian King, Jacob Keith and Bruce Harrell. The defense will feature end Austin Crane and free safety Blake Burch.

Hixson: Allante Novene was one of the most dynamic and versatile players in the city the last two years, but now that he’s graduating the Wildcats must find a new playmaker.

“I’m not sure you can just replace somebody with his skill set,” coach Jason Fitzgerald said. “We have some young guys who’ll have to step up there as well as on the offensive line.”

Charles Franklin will anchor the line and a pair of 6-foot, 200-pound bruising backs — Kedrick Bradley and Isaiah Robinson — will handle much of the ball-carrying chores.

Howard: With so many starters from last year graduating, and a large group of eighth-graders joining the varsity, Hustlin’ Tigers coach Michael Calloway said the team likely will just continue working in the weight room and introduce the offensive and defensive schemes slowly.

Only three seniors will return with game experience: quarterback Terrance Brooks, receiver Lorenzo McCallie and Kentarius Hampton, who is moving from fullback to tailback.

“We had so many kids who played a winter sport and then went right into spring sports, that we just decided to just keep lifting and not go out and bang around so much on the field,” Calloway said. “But when we get out there, we’ve got a good group of young kids coming up, especially a few new linemen that I’m really excited about.”

LaFayette: New coach Chad Fisher, who took Gordon Central to the playoffs the past two seasons, takes the Ramblers out Monday and will use the time to evaluate while also installing the spread offense. He knows the transition from wing-T to spread will have some growing pains.

“It will take some time, but this group seems to be willing to work,” said Fisher, who noted 93 players regularly turned out for 6:30 mat drills. “We’re very young, so we’re going to be as vanilla as possible this spring.”

Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe: Warriors coach Todd Windham, like many of his fellow northwest Georgia coaches, favors a new ruling from the GHSA that will allow teams next year to skip spring practice in favor of an additional scrimmage in training camp. Georgia teams currently are allowed only one scrimmage.

“I am definitely in favor of it and I’ve never understood why we’ve been given just one scrimmage to this point,” said Windham, who will begin spring practice Monday. “A lot of teams, from what I hear, are going to give up spring practice.”

The Warriors graduated only 13 seniors from last year, but that group included several two-way starters, including quarterback/linebacker Trey Silmon and receiver/cornerback Jackson Wallin. Sky Rogers, Silmon’s backup last year, will assume quarterback duties, according to Windham, but several other key positions are up for grabs.

“The kids we lost were very productive, but we feel good about the young kids coming up,” Windham said. “We’re going to use this spring to review fundamentals and do player evaluation.”

Lookout Valley: The Yellow Jackets will work to get freshman quarterback Evan Walker enough snaps to feel comfortable in the new pistol offense. Walker started three games as an eighth-grader and will be surrounded by several other youngsters in the backfield, including speedsters Jalen Wynn and Adrian McGee, who will split time at running back and receiver.

“We are young and inexperience in the backfield,” coach Tony Webb said, “but Evan can throw it better than anybody we’ve had since I’ve been here and as he grows, he’s becoming more athletic, too.

“We’re expecting big things on the line from Kendall Parham. He’s plenty big (6-4, 270) and can run for his size.”

Marion County: The most dramatic difference from last year is the size at defensive end, where the Warriors have gone from an average of 165 pounds to 270.

“We got mashed up front at Friendship Christian,” Warriors coach Mac McCurry said. “We just couldn’t occupy enough space up there, so we knew we had to get better size up there to stop the run and we’ve found a couple of good ones. Now we’re working on just being more physical overall on defense. Football is a game of inches on every play, and with our size now, hopefully we can win those battles over the critical inches.

“We’ve had the most productive offseason in the weight room in my time as a coach.”

Bradley Baxter has also made a significant jump in size, adding more than 30 pounds since last season. his 6-foot-1, 193-pound frame is better suited at linebacker now, where he will work with all-state running back/linebacker Blake Zeman (5-10, 223) and Cameron Foshee (5-10, 180). Zeman, a junior, again will be the bellcow on offense after establishing himself as one of the state’s most physical runners last season.

McCallie: With 22 players currently still involved in spring sports, the Blue Tornado will spend time getting the younger players used to contact and deciding who might be able to add depth once the starters return to begin work on the fall in earnest.

“We don’t look at where we are as a team in the spring,” coach Ralph Potter said. “It’s about individual work and just finding depth and who might surprise us with what they can do. Spring is all about the younger guys and the linemen for us.”

While McCallie has 15 rising seniors, there’s just one returning offensive line starter, but several skill positions do have experience, including Alex Trotter at running back and Spencer Morgan at split end.

McMinn Central: Leading rusher Denzell Boyd, a 1,400-yard rusher last year, and leading tackler Gabe Johnson (6-1, 205) give the Chargers a solid foundation on both sides of the ball.

Josh Knight (6-2, 210) is a key two-way player at tight end, and defensive end and Luke Davis (6-2, 180), who played linebacker last season, will add quarterback to his responsibilities.

“We’ve got some good returners to work with, except on the offensive line,” Chargers coach Josh Goodin said. “That’s probably our biggest task this spring, is finding new linemen and some depth there.”

McMinn County: With so many newcomers — the Cherokees have just two defensive starters back and four on offense — coach Bo Cagle said he may have to issue name tags until the staff knows all the players.

“I keep looking around wondering where everybody went,” Cagle joked. “We have a lot of juniors who just haven’t played. We’ll be inexperienced, but there’s talent.”

All that inexperience means Dre Sanders (5-8, 180) likely will get a lot more carries early on, since coaches know what he can do. His diminutive size helps him hide behind big offensive linemen before shooting through holes.

Defensive end Sebastian Felicidario (6-2, 210) is the lone senior on the line.

Meigs County: The Tigers had eight sophomore starters last season, including four on the offensive line, so there is plenty of experience back up front. Austin Kennedy (6-4, 310) is the lone senior offensive starter. With his size, so much returning experience up front and a pair of bruising runners in senior Lee Wilson (6-1, 240) and junior Dakota Ricker (5-11, 210), Meigs should have one of the most physical ground games in the area.

“It’ll be nice to be able to just run right at some people,” Tigers coach Ricky Holliday said. “They were baptized in fire, bless their hearts, but been working hard all offseason and we’ve seen some big gains in the weight room.”

Murray County: Energetic first-year coach Chad Brewer takes over a program starving for success, and he begins his first spring practice with no preconceptions. Most of the 10 days will be spent working on fundamentals and player evaluation, but one major position battle will be at quarterback, where Brady Todd graduated.

North Murray: Coach David Gann’s second spring practice, which began last Monday, is focusing on replacing more than 5,000 yards of total offense and 98 percent of the Mountaineers’ touchdowns with the impending graduation of quarterback Brady Swilling, all-purpose back Jacob Mays and fullback Christian Buckle.

If bloodlines mean anything, though, Gann’s offense will roll along. The top candidates to start are Hinton McConkey, son of former Dalton star Benji McConkey, and Payton Swilling, ex-Murray County and Furman University star Hugh Swilling’s son.

“Those two know the position, and if it means anything, they were undefeated on JV playing quarterback,” said Gann, whose also is installing a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Courtney Braswell. “It will be a busy spring for us, but so far it’s been productive.”

Northwest Whitfield: Graduating a strong group of seniors, third-year coach Josh Robinson has significant holes to fill, the key being at quarterback. Four players enter spring practice Monday with first shots at the starting spot. Among that group will be 2013-14 junior Caleb Shiflett and senior Andy Whisenant, who is the Bruins’ only returning defensive back starter.

“We know Andy can do the job, but he’s also a very important part of our defense, so he may be more valuable there,” said Robinson, who added that two current freshmen are also in the mix. “Caleb is very talented, as are the freshmen. We feel good with each of them.”

Robinson said he expects as many as six sophomores to start next season, so much of the spring will be spent on fundamentals.

Notre Dame: Things couldn’t have gone much better last year for first-year coach Charles Fant, who led a very young Fighting Irish team to nine wins and the second round of the TSSAA playoffs. Notre Dame will move down one classification to 3A this season, and that and the return of so many skill-position players fuel high hopes for an even deeper playoff run.

Two freshmen who became big-time performers — quarterback Alex Darras (6-2, 190) and running back Ricky Ballard (6-1, 180) — are back, along with junior speedsters Kareem Moore (6-0, 185), who scored 18 touchdowns last year, and Auston Banks (5-9, 175), who can play multiple positions. Also back is junior two-way lineman Joe Dossett (6-1, 285), who will be a major college prospect, and middle linebacker Kealey Green, who is expected to become the leader on that side of the ball.

“With our success last year, we have more kids coming out, which will be great for competition and depth,” said Fant, noting the team dressed 35 in its final playoff game last year but has 44 out now. “We will be working on finding some depth on both lines and we’re installing more of a spread offense because we want to be able to throw the ball more. We’ve got work to do, but we’re real excited about the possibilities.”

Ooltewah: Not only did the Owls hire a new head coach in Mac Bryan, but they also brought back Doug Greene, who had been Rhea County’s head coach, to be defensive coordinator. Greene has helped the team switch to a 4-3 alignment, a switch that will mean sophomore Jeremiah Jackson (6-0, 22) will be free to roam and make plays from sideline to sideline. Jackson led the Owls in tackles with more than 110 last year as a freshman.

The offense also has several impressive playmakers back, starting with senior quarterback Brody Binder (6-3, 223), who is being recruiting by Troy to play both football and baseball. Back to catch passes are receivers Edward Hayes, Anthony Turner and Mike Williams (6-1, 180), who already has an offer from Austin Peay and is being recruited by UTC, MTSU and Tennessee Tech.

All-state running back Desmond Pittman also is back.

“Brody has the best arm talent I’ve ever been around,” said Owls offensive coordinator Drew Akins. “He can open up a lot of opportunities for us, and Mike Williams is just a special athlete.”

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    Polk County's Zach Miller (35) runs the ball against Tyner Academy's defense during the Wildcat's spring football game against Tyner on May 2.
    Photo by Patrick Smith.
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Polk County: Unlike in years past, numbers were a concern this spring for the Wildcats, who wrapped up with only 28 players. About 10 who were involved in baseball will rejoin the team for training camp, but one missing component is coach Derrick Davis’ dad Larry, a former head coach who was unable to help this spring because of an illness.

“It’s the first time in my 14 years as coach here that he wasn’t out there with me, and I felt lost,” Derrick Davis said. “He said he wants to come back in the fall, but we’ll have to see how he’s feeling. He won’t be calling our offensive plays anymore, and things just aren’t the same without him.”

The Wildcats will have all-state running back Zack Miller (6-1, 232) back, as well as two-way lineman Tanner Plemons and senior Josh Silas, who started six games at quarterback returns as well.

Red Bank: The Lions are graduating 15 players from last season and will be changing both offensive and defensive schemes — going to the spread and a 3-4 defensive alignment.

Senior Mike Robinson (5-10, 165) and junior Mhalik Davis (6-3, 170) are battling for the starting quarterback role, and both are athletic enough to play other positions. There is a lot of potential, if not experience, at inside linebacker with Gabe Smith (6-0, 220) and Deshawn Joseph (6-0, 230). Smith is moving from defensive end and Joseph hasn’t played varsity football before.

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    Ridgeland's Noah Cooper, No. 28, and teammates stand during the Georgia Class AAAA 2012 state football championship ceremony.
    Photo by Staff File Photo.
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Ridgeland: The good news is the Panthers were the story of last season, reaching Georgia’s Class AAAA state title game. The bad news is much of the talent that helped them get there is gone.

The Panthers must replace three offensive linemen and a defensive lineman, as well as three running backs who were among the best in the entire area. Noah Cooper is the only running back returning with experience and will be counted on heavily, especially early on. He’ll be joined in the backfield by senior Georga Johnson, who missed last year with an ACL injury, and senior Hunter Kaufhold, who takes over at quarterback.

Once again the Panthers will have one of the area’s top college prospects as tight end Jermaine Conyers (6-3, 290) is already getting offers from FBS programs.

“We’ve had a great offseason because this group saw what last year’s group did to reach their goal and they’re emulating it in their workouts,” Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said.

Ringgold: The Tigers, according to coach Robert Akins, are tweaking their option-based offense to take better advantage of quarterback Slade Dale’s talents and to reduce turnovers. To that end, coaches have studied at Wofford College and will base the offense on what they learned.

“We were based in the pistol last year, and while we’re still going to play option football, it’s going to be different,” Akins said. “We won’t be optioning at the line of scrimmage anymore, so that the defensive end doesn’t just have to stand up and make a play. If you hit Slade now, you’ll have to run a long way to get him.”

Akins is another coach who will likely ditch spring practice in favor of an added summer scrimmage next year.

Sale Creek: The original plan was to play a junior varsity schedule for two years, but the Panthers instead opted to go ahead and jump into varsity play. Ron Cox, who had been the coach at Soddy-Daisy Middle School the last three years, is head coach and Roy Shipley is offensive coordinator. Sale Creek will compete in District 6-A with Lookout Valley, Marion County, South Pittsburg and Whitwell.

Sequatchie County: One of the most anticipated returns by a coach in the area will be by Ken Colquette, the four-time state champion, coming back to the valley. But there is plenty of work to be done before the season, and Colquette said he will spend the spring evaluating talent and determining not only a depth chart but even what style of offense best fits. Adding to the uncertainty is the absence of about 18 players who are still involved in spring sports.

Former Marion County head coach Tim Taylor, a longtime assistant under Colqeutte, is joining he Indians staff and will work with the offense. Sequatchie County has two other former head coaches — Curt Jones and Sam Montgomery — on staff, working with the defense.

“We have a lot more questions than answers right now as far as what type option we’ll run, who is going to play what position and how much depth we have,” Colquette said. “We’ll be starting from scratch with me, so I need to know who can go both ways and find out from there who we think can play and who might need a little more time to develop.”

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    Signal Mountain's Diamez Franklin (2) breaks up a pass in the end zone intended for Notre Dame's Tim Barnes.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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Signal Mountain: By the end of last season, a sophomore-heavy roster had turned the corner and become a dangerous team. Now, with so much talent returning, the Eagles expect again to make a deep push into the playoffs. The entire offensive line is back, as is running back Diamez Franklin, who has bulked up from 180 pounds to 215. Mammoth fullback James McClellan (6-1, 275) should be a punishing lead-blocker and junior tight end Harrison Moon (6-6, 255) is already one of the highest-rated prospects in the nation at his position. Moon is being heavily recruited by Tennessee, Alabama, Clemson, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, among others.

JuniorJack Teter (6-1, 195) will take over at quarterback, but coaches feel his talent should overcome any lack of experience and the staff is also excited to see what senior defensive tackle Marcus Hardy (6-6, 365) can do after sitting out last season.

“We’ve got great size and a lot of athletic ability — it’s just a matter of living up to it,” Eagles coach Bill Price said. “We have to get better defensively if we’re going to get where we want to be, because we have a very tough schedule.”

Silverdale Baptist: This is the first time in a while that the Seahawks have held spring practice, and the reason is to introduce a large group of freshmen to varsity-level competition.

Coaches also wanted to get new quarterback Nathan Keylon plenty of snaps and make sure veterans such as fullback/defensive end Lincoln Phillips (6-2, 225), two-way lineman Aubrey Shamblin (6-0, 250) and running backs/linebackers Matt McCulley (5-11, 185) and Josh Rogers (6-0, 185) take on leadership roles.

Soddy-Daisy: Former Red Bank quarterback Justin Barnes is now in charge of the Trojans, and the biggest question going through spring is settling on a starting quarterback. There are only a combined six snaps of experience among the trio of candidates of Hunter Maynor, Grant Cordell and Tanner Cochran, and Maynor and Cordell are still involved in baseball.

“Tanner is getting all the snaps right now, but I’m anxious to see what happens once those other two guys get in the mix and we see how the competition shakes out,” Barnes said. “Our numbers are good, we’ve got 62 out there, and there’s a lot of excitement with a new staff. They all have a fresh start, and I’ve been real impressed with their work ethic so far.

“For me, it’s great being back in Chattanooga after being away for eight years. We’ve put in our four base run plays and we’ll just focus on being good at the basics for now and add things as we go.”

South Pittsburg: New head coach Tim Moore had three days to introduce himself to the team and make a spring practice schedule. He wasted no time getting to work on Monday and said the team will continue using the same offensive and defensive schemes through the spring, then introduce changes during the summer workouts.

Having seniors Jajauan Lankford and Kahlil Mitchell returning in the backfield gives the team plenty to build around. Lankford has rushed for more nearly 4,000 yards in his career and Mitchell is a physical runner and linebacker. Senior Andrew Hawkins and junior Corbin Fitzgerald will compete for quarterback duties, but both will see plenty of action on both sides of the ball.

“The biggest thing for me is going to be evaluating and getting to know the guys,” said Moore, who was an all-state offensive linemen for the Pirates in the late 1970s. “I need to find out what they’re good at and where they need work, and I want to get to know them personally, to build a relationship with them. It’s a lot of work crammed into a short amount of time.

“You can see there’s talent, just from last year’s film and seeing them on the field already. I’ve been impressed with the linemen we have and willing the kids are to work hard already.”

Trion: Justin Brown’s second spring practice, which wraps up Friday, is quite different from his first — in a good way.

“We’ve got 77 kids, which is a big number for us,” said Brown, who has several players still competing in baseball, where the Bulldogs have reached the Class A semifinals. “We’re riding the success of last year and there’s a lot of excitement in the school, which has made recruiting the halls much easier.”

That doesn’t mean Brown won’t be busy. He must find replacements for his fullback and wingbacks in the team’s wing-T attack, and he will choose from a group including Gabe Howell, Jared Wiggly, Chandler Latham, Blake Martin and Bradley Womack for playing time. Finding a replacement for inside linebacker Kingston Lanier is also a key.

Tyner: Besides Arthur Coefield (6-2, 230) at center, the Rams have very little returning experience on either offensive or defensive line. Skill position is a much different story, where Haasan Miller and Willie Stewart each can play quarterback and running back as well as defensive back, and Caleb Hardley is another quality running back/cornerback.

Rodney Watson (6-3, 195) established himself as a go-to receiver with sure hands this spring, and his brother, Jarret Watson, will also see action at receiver and linebacker.

Rams coach Wayne turner said he is also very pleased with the ability, toughness and leadership of Jalen Grimes (5-11, 170) a fullback and agile defensive lineman.

Walker Valley: The Mustangs are starting from scratch on the offensive line, where they have no returning starters. Even after two weeks of spring work, coaches still have questions about the line depth.

“We like where we are in the skill positions and on defense, but we need to shore up our offensive line so we can move the ball consistently,” Mustangs coach Glen Ryan said.

After playing defensive line, Tanner Dillard (6-1, 245) is now playing fullback, and Cory Cook at quarterback and Chandler Hunt at running back give Walker Valley a solid backfield. The Mustangs are moving up one class to 6A this year, and a roster of about 50 players is small in number to compete in the state’s largest class.

Whitwell: The Tigers lost six starters on both sides of the ball, including almost every offensive lineman and their leading tacklers from last year. The brother tandem of Dusty and Clay McHone will make up the Tigers’ running backs, and Jake Sartain is a linebacker who can also play on offense.

Whitwell had 26 players go through spring practice and will add another seven from spring sports and 12 freshmen by the season, which will give coach Billy Barnhart the largest roster he’s worked with.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293; Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6296.

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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