By Trey Williams
Bryson Peterson will be Unicoi County football coach Drew Rice’s ace next season. For now, he’s providing a heck of a bullpen.
Peterson got his second spot start of the season on Friday, Sept. 25, against Sullivan East (2-3) and engineered a 29-12 victory. Peterson, a junior, completed 10 of 15 passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns for the Blue Devils (1-1, 3-3). He also ran for 32 yards to convert a third-and-long late in the third quarter.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t know he was starting until game day. Senior starter Brock Thompson began suffering recurring pain in his non-throwing shoulder after practice Wednesday night, an injury that caused him to be relieved by Peterson during the Hampton game and all of the North Greene game.
Peterson has been up to the challenge. He is 26 of 36 passing for 336 yards, five TDs and two interceptions.
“Bryson’s a really quiet kid,” Rice said. “He played quarterback growing up but didn’t play as a freshman. I recruited the dog out of him to try and get him out, and he didn’t play. But then we got him out as a sophomore, and he played receiver and safety last year. And then I guess probably about October last year he started playing quarterback a little bit on the JV, and I think it was the Volunteer JV game – the last JV game of the year – and it was like 7-7 in the fourth quarter and we called a pass and it breaks down and he just takes off and runs like 65 yards for a touchdown.
“And it was kind of similar Friday night. I think it was like third-and-14 and the play breaks down and he gets loose and he runs it 25 yards or whatever to keep the drive alive. And we ended up scoring on that drive.”
Peterson isn’t just an athlete playing quarterback.
“He is an athlete and he’s not super-big or anything,” Rice said, “but his ball really comes out of his hand. He’s got a lot of spin on it and the velocity his balls have on ‘em – it really gets to the receivers in a hurry. And his decision-making is very fast.”
Peterson’s ballboys – his two younger brothers – also worked very fast to keep dry balls in the game during a constant drizzle at Gentry Stadium on Friday.
Sullivan East dampened spirits early when Seth Dalton threw a 72-yard TD pass to Luke Hare for a 6-0 lead. Peterson answered with a 20-yard TD pass to Nehemiah Edwards – his first reception of the year – on a play-action bootleg.
“We motioned Nehemiah across and let him comeback across the formation,” Rice said. “Bryson got his head around and dumped it off to him, and he took off.”
Jordan Bridges caught TD passes of 34 and 38 yards in the second quarter, giving the Blue Devils a 21-6 halftime lead.
Dominic Cross’ 31-yard scoring run got East within 21-12 in the third quarter, but Edwards answered with a 2-yard TD in the fourth period. Evan Huff concluded the scoring by gathering a high PAT snap and running in for the two-point conversion.
Unicoi enjoyed the return of center Dawson Hampton, who hadn’t played since the season opener against South-Greene. It boosted the ground game, which has been all but non-existent at times without him.
Edwards carried 17 times for 83 of the Blue Devils’ 144 rushing yards.
“It the best game our offensive line has had, no question,” Rice said. “We were able to run the ball, had some success there. And we made that a priority last week.
“Dawson Hampton played center. You could tell a difference there. He jumped right back in and that was the best we’ve clicked up front all year.”
Freshman Andrew Fagan got invaluable experience during Hampton’s absence.
“Andrew Fagan has done tremendous,” Rice said. “For a freshman to step in there under the circumstances like he did – Andrew’s not even a center, and he started four games there for us. For him to go from playing middle school ball last year to the second game of the year he’s starting against Hampton, you know, that’s a tough task. And I think he really did a good job.
“He is somebody, whether it’s at center or guard or tackle, he’s gonna be a really, really good lineman for us in the future. And he’ll still be in the mix. He can play all three spots. That’s a huge bonus.”
The Blue Devils defense held East to 166 yards.
“Multiple times our defense bowed its back in huge situations,” Rice said. “The defense really played well to bounce back after the game we had last week at Claiborne. It was good to see.
“We were in the backfield all night. I thought our defensive line played well. Isaiah Smith at linebacker – his is just rock-solid.”
Punter Esteban Mendoza had a big night against East.
“Esteban flipped the field and the ball rolled out on like the 4-yard line,” Rice said. “I think he had three touchbacks. When it’s a game that’s back and forth and you’re battling the weather, field position is even more important.”
Mendoza also had two sacks, as did Edwards and Chris Chavez.
Rice said Thompson’s status is day to day. He could return for Friday’s home game against Chuckey-Doak. The Black Knights, led by quarterback Matthew Palazzo, are 4-2 overall (two wins were via forfeit) and 2-0 in Region 1-3A.
Chuckey-Doak won 36-34 last year in Afton. Palazzo threw for 408 yards and four TDs. Of course, slot receiver Hayden Rush has graduated, and he had 15 catches for 278 yards last season.
“They’ve got a good run game this year,” Rice said. “They’re not like Winged T running it, but probably 60-40 run. They’re definitely capable of throwing it, though, with a quarterback like that.”
Notes: Bridges leads Unicoi with 238 receiving yards and three TDs on nine catches. Huff has a team-high 15 receptions for 167 yards and three TDs. … Edwards has a team-high 175 yards rushing on 53 carries. … Smith has a team-high 68 tackles and his three forced fumbles are tied for the team lead with Mendoza, who leads the team with four sacks.