Head coach Drew Rice instructs players during the Blue Devils’ first day of practice on Monday, July 10. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

The lights at Gentry Stadium haven’t been turned on for the 2017 season yet, but that hasn’t kept the Unicoi County High School football team from taking the field.

The Blue Devils, under the direction of head coach Drew Rice, officially started practice on Monday, July 10, in preparation for their upcoming campaign. This, however, is just another day of work in what has been months and months of effort.

“The way football has evolved, it has really become a year-long commitment with training and lifting and other things,” Rice, who is entering his first full season at the held of the UCHS program, told The Erwin Record.

The Blue Devils ended last season with an overall record of 5-6. The team advanced to the first round of the 3A playoffs where they were defeated by the eventual state champion Alcoa Tornadoes.

Following the end of the 2016 season, Rice said he and his fellow coaches identified where the squad needed to improve and focused their offseason schedule on those facets of the game. A major focus for the team has been running the ball and defending the run, according to the head coach.

During the 2016 season, the Blue Devils gained 2,112 total yards in the air, while giving up 1,063 to their opponents. However, on the ground the Blue Devils had only 1,056 total yards, while giving up a total of 2,261.

“We had a lot of success throwing the ball last season, but I felt like we struggled to run the ball effectively,” Rice said. “We had some success, but not like we wanted. We also had trouble stopping the run.

“We want to keep our passing game successful, but for us to be where we want to be we have to be able to run the football and we have to be able to stop the run. Most teams in our league that is what they do – run the football. To run the football effectively and to stop the run, we had to get stronger.”

The Blue Devils went to work in January.

“We started and we have worked five days a week since then, except for the recent dead period,” Rice said. “We haven’t just been lifting. We have worked on flexibility and agility and have been working on our speed.

“We have gotten a lot stronger for sure, but our greatest gains have been with our speed. We’ve tested the players four times – in December, in February, in April and in June – with our lifting and with our speed. Our team growth has been great. In December we had six guys who ran a 40 in 5 seconds. In June we had 19. Our weight room numbers have really went up.”

Rice credited those gains to the hiring of Mark Peterson as the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator. Peterson will also be the running back coach during the season.

“It has been huge to have someone on staff who is dedicated to getting us bigger, faster and stronger as a football team,” Rice said. “That was tons of help.”

The Blue Devils participated in spring practice during the first two weeks of May. This portion of their offseason work culminated with a scrimmage against Cosby.

“We had a great showing,” Rice said of the scrimmage. “Our defense played lights out. We didn’t give up a touchdown.”

Since spring practice, the team has been working out five days per week.

“We transitioned into conditioning after spring practice,” Rice said.

The Blue Devils also worked on their passing game prior to the recent dead period.

“We threw some in June,” Rice said. “We worked on putting in our offense and our defense. June was great.”

The Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association (TSSAA) does not permit practices or scrimmages during the week prior to and the week of July 4. This gave the Blue Devils a break before they returned to work on Monday with approximately 60 players on the roster.

“We have tried to make our offseason so hard in order to get guys committed and invested,” Rice said. “When you have been working five days a week since January, it’s hard to quit. We are excited about the guys who have been here. We think they have bought in and are ready to roll.”

The Blue Devils will participate in two 7-on-7 competitions this week. The first was held at Sullivan North on Tuesday, July 11, after The Erwin Record’s press deadline; the second will begin at 5 p.m. at Elizabethton on Thursday, July 13.

“We are looking to see what our guys can do, especially the guys who are playing for the first time or haven’t played in a few years,” Rice said of the 7-on-7 competitions.

Beginning on July 17, the players will go don helmets and shoulder pads for practice.

“We will really start to ramp up the football portion then,” Rice said. “We will work on blocking technique and tackling technique. It will be a tough week. We will find out who wants to be there and who’s for real about it. It’s exciting.”

Practice in full pads will begin on July 24. During that week the team will travel to Volunteer for a scrimmage on July 27. They will host a scrimmage against Cosby on Aug. 4 and compete at North Buncombe on Aug. 9.

“After that, it’s game week,” Rice said. “We are really pleased with our offseason. We have spent tons and tons of time at work. The commitment out of the guys has been great. We are excited to see what they can do.”

The Blue Devils will open the 2017 season on Aug. 18 at South Greene. They will play their first game at Gentry Stadium on Aug. 25 when they host Sullivan East.

Season tickets are currently on sale for $25 at the high school. For more information, call 743-1632.