By Trey Williams
Unicoi County linebacker Isaiah Smith will tackle any task that Coach Drew Rice puts before him.
Smith, a junior, leads the Blue Devils with 68 tackles this season. He also willingly moved from running back to the offensive line after two of the five starters were lost to injuries.
“After the North Greene game I gave him the game ball,” Rice said. “We’d really struggled up front the first two games. The Hampton week we lost Dawson (Hampton) and Rodrigo (Castellon) that week. I already had one freshman starting on the offensive line and we hadn’t played well up front anyway.
“I went to Isaiah, who was playing running back – the South Greene game (season opener), he was our starting running back – and I said, ‘Isaiah, if I need you to play guard this week will you do it?’ He didn’t even blink and said, ‘Yes sir.’”
Smith is more interested in helping the Blue Devils (1-1, 3-3) win a region title and record a third straight winning season than receiving individual accolades.
“I do want to win,” Smith said, “but mostly I just want to help my team in any way I can. If playing O-line is where coach needs me, then that’s where I’ll play.”
Smith’s older brothers, Jacob and Michael, played for the Blue Devils.
“My older brothers have been great motivation and support,” Smith said. “Watching them play and seeing how good they were makes me want to carry on that torch and make them proud. Having multiple siblings always has its moments of competitiveness, but also creates a sense of family and belonging. Same could be said for toughness. Being the third in four brothers, you have no choice but to be tough.”
The Smiths have made Rice’s job easier.
“Jacob and Michael both were really good players for us,” Rice said. “And you talk about a kid that just wants to do whatever’s asked of him – Isaiah’s just a tremendous kid. He will make a heck of an employee someday for somebody.”
For now, he manages a defense. Smith’s 68 tackles are 27 more than any teammate’s total. He’s also forced three fumbles, which is tied for the team lead with Esteban Mendoza.
“Defensively, Isaiah’s all over the place,” Rice said. “He gets us lined up, plays middle linebacker and gets all our calls in. He does a whole heck of a lot for us, and I’m just glad we’ve got him another year.”
Playing for Rice, Smith says, is a privilege.
“I have much respect and love for Coach Rice,” Smith said. “He is not only a coach to my brothers and me, but a mentor and an inspiration. He is not only there for on-the-field problems, but also for off-field problems. He has done a great job of bringing us – coaches and players – together as a family.”
Smith will always cherish Friday nights’ lights.
“Just the feeling of stepping onto the field is hard to describe,” Smith said. “Your blood is pumping and every instinct is telling you to run faster, hit harder, just make that play. I do enjoy playing linebacker, but I enjoy playing the game in general more.”
The Blue Devils won’t be playing for the second straight week on Friday, Oct. 9. This week’s bye, it turns out, was preceded by the postponement of a home game with Chuckey-Doak due to COVID-19 concerns within the Black Knights program on Oct. 2.
Rice said Unicoi County could’ve been awarded a forfeit had he chosen to go that route. But the Black Knights won 36-34 last year to hand the Blue Devils their lone league loss in what turned out to be the Region 1-3A championship.
So Unicoi canceled its Oct. 23 game against Volunteer to reschedule Chuckey-Doak (2-0, 4-2).
“Technically, we could’ve told them we weren’t gonna move our game and we would’ve gotten a win,” Rice said. “But that’s a game we’ve had circled for a year now and we want to play ‘em whatever way we’ve gotta do it. … I hated to back out on Volunteer, but I didn’t want a 1-0 COVID win in a game that big.”
Rice said the postponement should work in his team’s favor. Quarterback Brock Thompson (shoulder) would’ve been “extremely limited” last week and defensive back Gavyn Sawyer wouldn’t have played. Both should be available for the remaining three games – league games against West Greene, C-D and Johnson County.
The Devils caught another break when Johnson County (2-1, 3-3) defeated league-leading Claiborne (2-1, 5-1) last week.
“We control our own destiny now as far as hosting a playoff game,” Rice said. “And if Chuckey-Doak was to beat Claiborne and we win out, then we’d win the region outright. We got some help and we’ve just gotta take care of us now and let the chips fall where they may.”
Unicoi County has won three of four since an injury-riddled 0-2 start. Among the triumphs were a 29-12 defeat of Sullivan East and a 31-14 win at Happy Valley. And the three teams Unicoi has lost to – South Greene, Hampton and Claiborne – have a combined record of 17-1.
“I think we could go far this season,” Smith said. “We have a good team, and last Friday against Sullivan East and our win over Happy Valley showed how strong a team we are. We all have our bad days, but working as a team, as a family like Coach Rice has made us, we have the ability to control our destiny this season.”
As of The Erwin Record’s press deadline for this issue, the Blue Devils are scheduled to travel to Mosheim to face West Greene on Friday, Oct. 16, at 7:30 p.m.