DIVISION II-AA EAST/MIDDLE AT A GLANCE
Team on the rise: McCallie finished 4-8 last year but the much of that was because the roster was loaded with underclassmen. The Blue Tornado was playing much better by the end of the season, reaching the quarterfinals, and with the return of seven starters on both sides, plus a handful of speedy playmakers, they should continue to gain ground on the top programs.
Team on the decline: Baylor returns just four offensive starters and five on defense and has just two linemen on either side of the ball with starting experience.
Toughest schedule: The biggest hurdle for McCallie to clear to have its first winning season in six years is the fact that there simply isn't any breathing room in the schedule. The Blue Tornado open against Cleveland, a Class 5A semifinalist last year, followed by a road trip to McMinn County and perennial Kentucky power Bowling Green, plus they host Murfreesboro Siegel, which has been a top-five 6A program the past few seasons. Throw in consecutive weeks of having to face Ensworth, Baylor and Brentwood Academy and it's clear McCallie has its work cut out.
Dream schedule: Father Ryan has six home games, including getting to host powerhouse Ensworth and two of the Fighting Irish's non-league games are against smaller schools Hillwood and Stratford, which were a combined 3-17 last year.
Players to watch: MBA sophomore running back Ty Chandler is the real deal and is already drawing college interest and Big Red quarterback Cole Euverard is all-state caliber. Ensworth might have the best defensive back combo in the state with Rico McGraw and Donovan Sheffield. Baylor quarterback Nick Tiano is a Mississippi State commitment and junior receiver Gage Upshaw will be a college prospect next year. McCallie junior cornerback Nygel Edmonds already has offers from more than a dozen colleges, including Tennessee, South Carolina and Clemson.
Predicted order of finish: Brentwood Academy and Ensworth are expected to once again battle for the top spot, while MBA, McCallie and Baylor are considered just a notch below, talent-wise. Father Ryan is dangerous and Pope John Paul II is still a ways from competing seriously.
Ralph Potter grimaces at the mention of it. When told that other coaches in Division II-AA chose McCallie as the team poised to join the ranks of league contenders, the Blue Tornado head coach makes a face like he just took a sip of spoiled milk.
"That's a little premature," Potter said. "We've still got a long way to go to catch up to the teams in our league. I think we're headed in the right direction and having our staff stay together always helps, but we've got a lot of work left to get there."
Despite coming off a season in which they lost twice as many games as they won, and not having had a winning season in six years, having seven starters back on both sides of the ball, and the talent among the younger classes, make the Blue Tornado a team on the rise.
The Blue Tornado's strength is with the experienced playmakers returning, starting in the backfield with dual threat junior quarterback JaVaughn Craig (6-3, 185), as well as running backs Alex Trotter (5-9, 180) and Paul Silverblatt (5-11, 170). Add in receivers Myles Patton and Nygel Edmonds, a junior who transferred from Atlanta over the summer and is a four-star prospect with more than a dozen college offers already.
Three of the four members of the state champion 4x100 relay team also play football, giving McCallie the speed to match perennial region powers Ensworth and Brentwood Academy.
"I do like our speed; there's been an upgrade there," Potter admitted. "And we can rotate nine or ten guys in both lines, so we've got some experience and a good mix of talented young guys.
"But this league is so competitive, and it's difficult to make up ground in a hurry. The things that separate the teams in our league are the strength programs and the size of the coaching staffs."
Like most of the other teams in the D-II arms race, McCallie has a full-time strength coach and an impressive weight facility (10,000-square foot) where players workout year round and the Blue Tornado also has 10 coaches on staff.
While McCallie is making up ground, Baylor is in the process of training to maintain its position in the league. The Red Raiders, who played in consecutive title games in 2010 and 2011, have lost a substantial amount of college-level talent in the last three years. They have four starters back on offense, including Mississippi State commitment Nick Tiano at quarterback and five returning on defense, including Luke Hutchins, a three-year starter at linebacker.
"We lose a lot of talent every year and then the next year we're supposed to be down but we keep proving people wrong when they thing we're going to have a drop off," Hutchins said. "It's more satisfying to win when people doubt you."
Baylor's biggest questions are in the lines, where they have just two players with starting experience on either side of the ball. But there are playmakers surrounded Tiano, including junior receiver Gage Upshaw (6-3, 220) and Sean Wampler, an all-region safety who will take over most of the running back duties for 4,000-yard career rusher George Porter.
"Hearing people talk about the other teams in the region drives us to work a lot harder," Hutchins said. "A lot of people think we're crazy for working so hard, but I really think that's what I like most is the amount of work and the results on game night. Nothing compares to that feeling of Friday nights.
"Two-a-days and everything we go through, it's all worth it when that first Friday night gets here."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
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 ...