By Tim Chambers
Rebuilding or reloading
Trying to duplicate what the past two Johnson County football teams have done in the way of wins over the past two seasons appears impossible, but the team is confident they can do so.
The Longhorns must replace a smorgasbord of stud players off of last year’s conference championship 9-2 squad. The Horns are 20-3 over the past two seasons so winning a third consecutive conference championship appears taller than Shaquille O’Neal on stilt.
Gone is All-State tailback and defensive whiz Nathan Lane who led East Tennessee in scoring last year. Also gone is linebacker Tyler Norris who broke the single-season school record for most tackles in a season and led Northeast Tennessee too. Throw in the loss o marquee players like Troy Arnold, Zack Eller, Weston Throop, and others, and many are asking how they can repeat?
The answer is simple
Several of this year’s key performers played significant roles on those teams as sophomores and juniors. Now it’s their turn to shine.
“The guys on our team have high expectations and believe they can win football games, but we’ve got to find a way to replace the leadership those kids off last year’s squad provided,” said JCHS’ head coach Don Kerley. “We’ve got to find some leadership on this team, and we’ve got to get our kids in the right spots. A lot of our players have bought into what we’re trying to do, so we’re hoping there is not a big fall off. You want to be good every year, and we know what the expectations are up here.”
There will be a new quarterback for the third time in three years. Stacy Greer will get the call as a junior. He’s shown the ability to be a good runner but is currently trying to improve his accuracy in the passing game.
Kerley said that the running back positions would be by committee. Jared Kimble is likely to be the go-to guy. Curtis Lowe will see time there as will Samuel Mann, Jisiaiah Webster, and Cory Neely.
“I think Mann is ready to have a break out year,” added Kerley. “Kimble could be our best athlete. He can run the ball and catch plus he’s a pretty good defensive player. We are expecting the same from Curtis Lowe. He’s worked hard in the offseason, and we think he can go both ways and provide us some quality play.”
Kerley also praised the play of Webster and Neely.
“Jia can run the football, but he’s such a good linebacker with a lot of speed. Cory is still young as a sophomore and getting stronger, but he’s very fast. He’s good running the ball in the open field, and we’re counting on him to be a receiver and defensive back. Nate Rice is another sophomore who can run the football, and he’s an excellent linebacker. He did a lot of good things for us as a freshman last year.”
The line has been a question mark over the past few seasons, but this year the tide has turned. The Longhorns are returning nearly everyone on both sides of the football, which appears to be their bread and butter.
Sophomore John Stout and junior Logan Gilley will anchor the line that will also include Conner McNutt, Ricky Fenner, Lucas Walters, and Luke Osborne. Jamal Scott could see time there too and will hold down the defensive end spot. Colt Moody has had a good spring practice and could log time on both sides of the ball as a lineman.
“John Stout has a chance to be a special player here,” said Kerley. “Logan is a good lineman too, but we’re going to play him at nose tackle and some in the offensive line. Our line is well ahead of where we were last year at this time. We’re about where we were four weeks into the season. Those guys have got a lot bigger and stronger. We’ve got a lot of players who have gotten much faster too.”
Junior Ethan Bower returns as a starter in the defensive backfield. Junior receiver Will Henson and senior running back Tyrone McFadden are currently rehabbing their way back in shape from offseason injuries and should be back before the second regular-season game. Sophomore Ethan Icenhour is expected to play a lot when he
Seniors, Andrew Dugger, and Nathan Mink will
likely be on the defensive side of the football while
Stephen Bunn will be penciled in at the tight end and Danny Medley at wide receiver.
The Longhorns got a significant lift on Wednesday when basketball standouts Lucas Phillips and Michael Oxentine came out for the team. Both are strong and athletic and could be a massive shot in the arm for Coach Kerley and his staff. They are likely to contribute early like Troop did last season.
Kerley tabbed Unicoi County, Chuckey-Doak and West Greene as the teams to beat in the conference.
“Chuckey-Doak probably has the toughest schedule, and West Greene has their stud quarterback back and some others. Unicoi will be good with their top running back and quarterback
returning, and you can never count out Claiborne. They always have some good athletes.”
The Longhorns will have
a tough non-conference schedule that features Hampton and Happy Valley on the road in addition to Sullivan North and Cloudland at home.
“I like our schedule,” said Kerley. “We play a lot of teams that our fans are familiar with and the travel is not as bad. Hampton and Happy Valley are always good, and so is North and Cloudland. Our focus now is on our first game with Sullivan East. We don’t want to be looking past anyone.”
The Longhorns will open the season at home on Friday against the Patriots. Kickoff is set for 7:30 on Harold Arnold Field.