As someone who loves high school football, I look forward to the area tour each year. So for the 15th consecutive year, on the first day Tennessee teams are allowed to practice in full pads, I tried to visit as many area schools as possible.
After 13 hours, 253 miles, 19 schools, three counties and two time zones, I can say there's no lack of talent or enthusiasm in the Chattanooga area heading into this season, which should make for another memorable fall.
All times Eastern.
7:21 a.m., Soddy-Daisy: The first few players making their way into the locker room don't appear to be morning people. They look more like zombie extras from an episode of "The Walking Dead" as they wander in slowly, wiping the sleep from their eyes and plopping down at their lockers. The pace will pick up quickly as second-year coach Justin Barnes planned a physical practice designed to help the team get better at running the ball.
The offense returns seven starters, including quarterback Hunter Maynor, who threw for more than 1,700 yards last year, but the ground game will be a point of emphasis.
7:48, Red Bank: My first thought as I walk in the room is that the Lions are in for a really tough season, judging from the athletic bodies walking around. But then I realize I've walked into the area where the band members are, and after quickly making an about-face, I see that things aren't quite so bad for first-year coach Chad Grabowski. The locker room is full and players are energetic already, which is good considering what awaits them on the field in a few minutes.
"We're going to go with a modified Oklahoma drill right off," Grabowski said. "We want to set the tone and go from there to see some of the newer kids and find out who can play in their pads. We've got to change the mindset back to winning instead of having them drop their heads the first time something goes against us."
8:06, Baylor: A 30-minute workout in the weight room is over and players are starting to make their way to the field, where punters and kickers already are warming up. The three-year run of Brazilian kickers (Mr. Football finalists Henrique Ribeiro and Rafael Gaglianone) is over for the Red Raiders. However, senior Colin Brewer, a soccer goalkeepr with range to make kicks from 45-50 yards, has waited his turn and is ready to take over. Baylor must replace four starters on the offensive line and its entire defensive line as well as running back George Porter, a 4,000-yard career rusher.
"We're very thin on depth, so we'll have more kids having to play both ways this year than any year since I've been here," Baylor coach Phil Massey said. "Everything leading up to today, the conditioning and going over plays, is the mental part. Today starts the physical part of the game to see who doesn't shy away from contact."
8:41, Hixson: While I'm sure Wildcats fans would rather know the team was working on extra-point protection, they instead are practicing punt protection and punt coverage.
Dan Duff, the man who took Hixson to its first playoff appearance in program history and helped the Wildcats reach the postseason four times including a trip to the quarterfinals in 1998, is back to direct the Wildcats. He led the program from 1996 to 2002 before leaving to take over the program at Rockmart in Georgia.
The Hixson staff must find replacements for last year's leading rusher and tackler.
9:10, Boyd-Buchanan: The Buccaneers are one of the few teams still conducting two-a-days, and in what should be a surprise to no one in light of head coach Grant Reynolds' reputation as one of the area's top defensive coaches, the morning session is dedicated solely to defense.
With nine starters back on both sides of the ball, the Bucs should be salty this fall. Even with so much talent returning they're still young with seven juniors and two sophomores in the starting rotation. The biggest question remaining is who will replace Jim Cardwell, a four-year starter at quarterback and safety. There's a three-way battle at quarterback among junior Cooper Hodge, sophomore Ross Wortman and freshman Kohl Henke. Hodge is expected to win that competition, while Henke (6-foot-2, 175) already owns the starting spot at free safety.
"He'll come up and strike you," Reynolds said with a smile. "He doesn't play like a freshman."
With a roster of 48, Bucs coaches are experimenting with a completely new group of defenders they can substitute in to keep fresh legs.
9:31 Brainerd: From across the practice field, one coach's voice booms as he works with the linemen.
"Don't be mad! You just got your [butt] whipped! Now come back harder on the next snap and do something about it!"
Other linemen are pushing a three-man blocking sled, and assistant Tyrus Ward instructs backs how he wants them to block before going out on pass routes. Five metal trash cans, with a gap in between each, are spread out to serve as the defensive line, and there's no wasted motion or time with Ward, who does everything with a sense of urgency. Once the backs finish their drill, he sends them to the opposite end of the field for a water break while he jogs to oversee the linemen, who are working on how to double-team a defender.
10:09, Chattanooga Christian: As players are making their way off the practice-field turf, one lineman veers off the sidewalk toward the sprinklers watering the grass and pauses for a few seconds to cool off.
First-year coach Rob Spence came from the college ranks with stops at more than 10 schools, including as quarterbacks coach at Rutgers and offensive coordinator at Clemson and Syracuse, and is adjusting to the preps level.
"The biggest difference is you have to be a much better teacher at the high school level," Spence said. "You need to be a master communicator, which is such an important responsibility."
The team already has had a workout session in the weight room this morning, then spent time going over and signing the team covenant, which is an accountability commitment to each other to work always as a team.
10:21, Ridgeland: Teams in Georgia must practice for five consecutive days in helmets and shorts before they can put on full pads, so the Panthers won't start hitting until Friday when they leave for team camp in Mentone, Ala.
The program continues to grow in numbers, and this year the roster has swollen to a record 127 varsity players. To earn the right to have his name on the back of his jersey, a player cannot miss more than three summer workouts, and 106 of the roster accomplished that.
"Of that number, 59 kids didn't miss a single workout, so the commitment is there for us to be good," coach Mark Mariakis said.
Aside from six seniors and two junior starters, the Panthers lineup will be freshmen and sophomores.
"We started five freshmen last year and will have at least three start this year, so we're still very young," Mariakis said.
2:57, Signal Mountain: As he watches three rotations of linemen punching the five-man blocking sled, Eagles coach Bill Price wastes no time showing how excited he is about the level of talent he's got in the offensive and defensive lines.
"We're so much more athletic up front this year," Price says with a wink. "And they're all about 260-270, which is something we've never had depth-wise."
That group of linemen includes Mississippi State commitment Harrison Moon (6-6, 270). Once the Eagles begin a defensive group drill, Price is in full throat, zeroing in on defensive end Skye Wilson for failing to fill a running lane.
"Be a man, son!" Price urges. "You're not a sissy! That won't get it! Now get your big butt in there and show me some guts!"
On the next play Wilson does his job exactly the way coaches expect, and as he makes a tackle in the backfield one assistant yells out, "Whew, yeah, train wreck!"
Price leans in to give his athletic end a high-five.
3:48, East Ridge: After a short water break, the Pioneers, who have 64 players out, start working on offense, and on the first snap running back DeAngelo Johnson, a three-year starter and 180-pound state wrestling champ, has the highlight move of the day so far. In a video game move, Johnson hits the "O" button on the controller to spin out of a tackle and juke another defender to get into open field.
4:12, Tyner: Several years ago I wanted to video part of the tour and decided to start by recording a Tyner practice. I abandoned that idea 20 seconds in after coach Wayne Turner unleashed a hailstorm of curse words on an offensive lineman who moved before the snap. Years later some things remain a given, and that includes the fact that the Rams will be physical as soon as they're allowed to hit and Turner is going to go all ham-and-cheese on the first poor kid who messes up in the heat.
Running back Brandon Jackson takes the handoff on a speed sweep, turns the corner and plows over two defenders, establishing himself as the type of hard-nosed runner the Rams are known for.
4:52, East Hamilton: The Hurricanes have been out for nearly two hours. The plan is to acclimate the players to practicing at the same time of afternoon they will work when school starts back. Although they need to replace seven starters on both sides of the ball, there's still talent, including running back Matt Milita, who's one of those guys who seems as if he's been playing with the varsity for 10 years. Senior defensive back Martez Durrah (6-1, 185) has FBS programs recruiting him, as does center Demetrius Morgan (6-3, 385), who often annoys defensive coordinator Steve Garland.
"He knocks the noseguard back into my 'Mike' linebacker's lap, jacking up his reads," Garland says.
"For a kid his size, he's in great condition," Hurricanes head coach Ted Gatewood says of Morgan. "I don't remember him ever tapping out of a game. We just went 40 snaps and he's already back in there on offense."
5:21, Ooltewah: The Owls have wrapped up team meetings and a weightlifting session and are starting to make their way to the field. With nine starters back on defense, they pass the eye test. And while just five starters are back on offense, there is experience, and all the players on that side of the ball are now more familiar with the up-tempo, no-huddle style.
"We've got some athletic kids and they've all worked really hard," says second-year coach Mac Bryan. "Things should come a lot easier for the guys this second year in our system. That should speed up our tempo, too, and that's what we want."
5:52, Silverdale Baptist Academy: It's a beehive of activity around coach Al Rogers as a continual stream of players, parents, assistants and now a nosy reporter interrupt his path to the practice field. Three players won't be allowed to hit because they've shown up without their medical clearance forms.
"That's like going to the ice cream shop and not getting to order," Rogers jokes. "I just want to coach, but there's a thousand other things to do when you're the head guy."
Silverdale Baptist lost 14 seniors from last year's team that made another playoff run but has 25 players with game experience back, including quarterbacks Nathan Keylon and Tanner Webb.
6:23, Howard: Of the Hustlin' Tigers' five starting offensive linemen, none weigh less than 310 pounds. That's not a typo. And while senior Desmond Powell (6-5, 356) isn't a starter yet, he's pushing to become another monster up front.
"There's been some talent here that hadn't been coming out before," first-year coach Mark Teague said. "We had to find ways to recruit the kids in our own halls before somebody else did."
Teague's strategy was a smart one. Knowing all kids like to look good, he ordered new home and away jerseys, had new "Vegas gold" helmets designed and also ordered each player new cleats.
"Today was all about finding out who's got some dog in them. We found out those big boys up front ain't pups, they're dawwwgs," Teague said, stretching out the word to describe how much his linemen like contact. "And our two sophomore backs (Davon Sherrer and McKenzie Williams) are going to be pretty special."
6:39, McCallie: Three-fourths of the Blue Tornado's secondary -- Alex Trotter, J.J. Lewis and Myles Patton -- were on the state champion 4x100 relay. The newbie is Nygel Edmonds (6-1, 185), a four-star football prospect who transferred from Atlanta's Westminster and already has offers from 10 FBS programs, including Clemson, Duke, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Ole Miss, North Carolina State, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin. And even among an athletic group of skill players, Edmonds is easy to spot. He also gives McCallie at least five college prospects in the junior class, joining quarterback JayVaughn Craig (6-3, 180) and lineman Corey McDonald (6-3, 265) as well as Trel Phillips (6-3, 215) and Jay Roberts (6-4, 220), both of whom can play tight end as well as defensive end or linebacker.
6:58, Lookout Valley: Half of the Yellow Jackets' 20 returners with game experience are seniors, and there are also eight starters back on both sides. Sophomore Evan Walker has been starting varsity games since he was an eighth-grader and is now 6-2, 175.
"The whole key for us, as always, is just keeping the right guys healthy, because our depth is really thin," coach Tony Webb said, referring to a roster of just 27.
7:33, Marion County: Football is an event for the entire community in Jasper. There are peewee teams of all ages -- some so tiny that their oversized helmets make them look like Marvin the Martian from the Bugs Bunny cartoons -- practicing on the field near where the Warriors' varsity players are going through drills.
First-year coach Ricky Ross is instructing a few defensive backs on how to shed blocks. Suddenly, one kid isn't as physical as his coach wants and is told to repeat the drill.
"This ain't tiddlywinks, it's football!" Ross yells. "It's a contact sport, son. Do it again, but this time drop your hips and strike him!"
7:57, South Pittsburg: The overall numbers are down, but 11 of the 31 players are seniors and there is still speed in the backfield, including running backs Corbin Fitzgerald and Chase Blevins. Tight end McKenna Blevins (6-2, 215) will be another athletic weapon for senior quarterback Kitt Grider, who has thrown for more than 6,000 combined yards in two years at North Jackson and last season with the Pirates.
"Kitt's shoulder was bothering him after baseball season, so we didn't do any 7-on-7 camps this year," Pirates coach Tim Moore said. "But he said it's feeling a lot better and we're going to tweak the offense to let him throw it around more this year."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com 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 ...