By Trey Williams
Considering he must replace explosive running back Kody Lewis, Unicoi County football coach Drew Rice is optimistic about his Blue Devils continuing their winning ways for a third straight season in 2020.
Unicoi has an overhauled Gentry Stadium – to the tune of $3.2 million – and a fourth-year starter at quarterback in Brock Thompson.
Rice will likely turn Thompson loose this season, and some up-tempo offense is expected to be part of the attack.
“Last year there were times we would go no-huddle,” Rice said. “It’s just the benefit of having a quarterback like Brock, who’s started 35 games or whatever he’s started now. … In the Happy Valley game last year I’d call the first play in a series, and I’d tell him, ‘If we get a first down you’ve got it after that.’ So there’d be drives last year where he’s just calling it at the line, just keeping it relatively simple, of course. But having a high school quarterback that’s intelligent enough to do that and be able to handle that and the tempo, the recognition and getting everybody lined up, I mean that’s certainly one of his greatest strengths as a quarterback.”
The Devils return six defensive starters and seven on offense. The receiving corps should be formidable with seniors Jordan Bridges, Tracy Vanover, Evan Huff and Robbie O’Dell.
“We feel like those four, partnered with Brock, we feel like we can sling it around a little bit,” Rice said. “And then Lucas Slagle is a sophomore tight end that’ll play some wideout, too. He gives us a weapon from the tight end spot that we really haven’t had in a little bit. We’re constantly looking for ways to get him the ball because he’s such a weapon with his height and his athleticism.”
Junior Isaiah Smith could start at running back. So could sophomores Nehemiah Edwards and Caleb Pelaez. And freshman Nolan Bennett has a bright future.
“Nehemiah’s more of a downhill, power runner and Caleb’s real elusive and shifty,” Rice said. “Freshman Nolan Bennett, I think, has got a chance to be special.”
There will be some growing pains on the offensive line, as evidenced occasionally during a season-opening 38-21 home loss to South Greene on Aug. 21.
“Rodrigo Castellon will be a two-way starter for us up front,” Rice said. “He’s probably in the conversation, as far as being an O-lineman and a D-lineman able to do a whole lot of things, of being one of the best linemen I’ve coached in my time here. He’s rock-solid, a weight room kid and really explosive. We’re really gonna lean on him on both sides of the ball.”
Esteban Mendoza will start at the guard slot opposite Castellon. Dawson Hampton starts at center and Caleb Swinehart and Grey Cannon start at offensive tackle.
“Dawson Hampton and Caleb Swinehart are two juniors that played a whole lot of football last year,” Rice said. “We’re gonna lean on those guys. One guy I’m really anxious to see on the offensive line is Grey Cannon. He actually hasn’t played football before this year, but he’s a super, super-strong kid. I think he got 325 on the bench Thursday. He’s still learning the game and learning what to do, but he’s one we’re excited about as well.”
Swinehart (end), Castellon (nose tackle) and Mendoza (end) will start up front on defense with tackle Gabe Tipton. Ethan Fuller, a 310-pounder, will play in trenches on defense too, as will 290-pound freshman Chris Roberts.
“Gabe Tipton is really undersized to be on the defensive line,” Rice said, “but he’s as slippery as slippery gets. And he’s a strong kid, a weight-room kid. He’s about everything you could ask for in a pass-rusher. … Roberts is super-strong and a gifted kid.”
Slagle, Cannon, Dylan Adams and Chris Chavez could also get significant snaps up front on defense.
“We’re really deep on the D-line,” Rice said. “We’ve got 10 guys that we think are Friday-night ready.”
Smith, Edwards and Eric Miles are expected to start at linebacker.
Thompson and backup quarterback Bryson Peterson start at safety, where O’Dell, Gavyn Sawyer and Matthew Hensley will also contribute.
Palaez and Matthew Sellars are atop the depth chart at cornerback.
“It’s probably the deepest our secondary’s ever been,” Rice said. “Brock and Bryson Peterson will probably be our first two safeties. Robbie O’Dell can play either one of those spots. He’ll play a ton. We’ve got Gavin Sawyer, one of the better players on the baseball team, that we got out – he’s just been a huge spark for a kid that hasn’t been playing football. He sure looks like he’s been playing before.
“And then at cornerback Caleb Pelaez and Matthew Sellars (start). Sellars is starting for the third year. He’s rock-solid at corner. He doesn’t say a whole lot, just shows up and gets the job done. He’s the definition of a program kid.”
For a team that lost explosive Brett Strother following the 2018 season, and again, must replace Lewis this year, Rice is excited about teeing it up with this roster.
“I’m not gonna say we have anybody as good as Kody,” he said. “I don’t think anybody would try to argue that – or even Brett from two years ago. But as far as having 10 or 15 guys that can just flat-out play, I don’t think we’ve ever been this deep. That’s something we’re really excited about.”
In the loss to South Greene (1-0, 0-0), the Blue Devils (0-1, 0-0) found themselves trailing throughout the game. They cut a 10-0 deficit to 10-7 before the Rebels scored just before the half to go up 17-7. UCHS scored twice in the third quarter to get within two points, 23-21, going into the final quarter; however, 15 unanswered points by South Greene in the final frame sealed the victory.
Thompson was 8-16 for 109 yards and 1 touchdown. Edwards had 8 carries for 32 yards and 1 touchdown on offense and scored a TD off a fumble by the Rebels. Bennett had 1 carry for 18 yards. Pelaez had 8 carries for 15 yards.
Huff had 4 catches for 50 yards. Bridges had 1 catch for 29 yards and a touchdown. Vanover had 2 catches for 21 yards. O’Dell had 1 catch for 9 yards.
The Blue Devils are scheduled to face the Hampton Bulldogs (0-0) on the road in Carter County on Friday, Aug. 28, at 7:30 p.m.