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Blue Devil football team returning to gridiron

Top photo, UCHS senior Evan Huff holds off a Sullivan East defender during his team’s victory over Sullivan East last month. After weeks without a game, the Blue Devils are scheduled to return to action on Friday, Oct. 16, at West Greene for a Region 1-AAA game. Above, Coach Drew Rice sends Bryson Peterson onto the field to lead the Blue Devil offense. (File photos)

By Trey Williams

Unicoi County senior receiver Evan Huff made a speedy transition after transferring from Science Hill prior to his junior year.

In his first Region 1-AAA game as a Blue Devil in 2019, Huff caught a 51-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the opening drive against North Greene.

“Anytime it’s in his hands,” Unicoi County coach Drew Rice said, “I feel like we can score.”

Huff leads the Blue Devils (1-1, 3-3) with 15 receptions this season. They’ve led to 167 yards and three touchdowns.

Huff has had to work with two quarterbacks in 2020. Senior Brock Thompson, who is expected to start on Friday, Oct. 16, when the Blue Devils visit West Greene, missed two-plus games with a shoulder injury. Junior Bryson Peterson filled in effectively.

Unicoi also has gotten productive play from Robbie O’Dell while without injured defensive back Gavyn Sawyer, who will likely be a game-time decision Friday at West Greene (1-2, 2-5).

“I feel good about our chances heading into the last part of the season,” Huff said. “We have playmakers all over the field on both sides of the ball who can impact the game at any point. We’ve also shown that if someone goes down with an injury that we have someone else that can step in and get the job done, and I think that depth will help us a lot going forward. It’s going to be great having Brock and Gavyn back, but Bryson and Robbie did an outstanding job stepping up when we needed them to.”

Huff said growing up with one of his brothers, Science Hill junior safety-receiver Jeremiah Hise, helped develop his game.

“He’s a year younger than me and is having a pretty good season himself from what I hear,” Huff said. “We were the two main athletes in my family and with us being so close in age it made for some fun backyard battles growing up. I only got to play one year with him my sophomore year at Science Hill before I moved here, and with this being my last year in high school it really means a lot looking back on it even though it seemed like such a little thing back then.”

Huff said having a father that was a football referee enhanced his development as well.

“I’ve seen more football than a lot of people in my life, as my dad was a referee for many years,” Huff said. “And ever since I can remember I was going to whatever game he worked that week on Friday night. I really think that has played a big part in helping my football IQ and understanding of the game.”

Football is in Huff’s blood. But he found a different sort of family at Unicoi County.

“One key point that I would really like to highlight is how close we are as a team,” Huff said. “It really feels like a family on the team, and that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I’ve only been here two years and I feel like I’ve grown closer to people here in that time than people in Johnson City I’ve known my whole life.

“Not only the players, but the coaches feel like family as well. The coaches are constantly checking in on us and making sure everything is going well in our life, and I know any one of the coaches would do anything for us that we needed and I would the same for them.”

Every player on the team, Huff says, has made contributions this season.

“Of course, Bryson stepping in for Brock was a key part of this season,” Huff said. “Isaiah Smith moving from running back to the O-line after the first part of the season really helped us run our offense even better than before. Esteban (Mendoza) has a great future in both high school and the next level with his punting, and him pinning the other teams deep all season has really given our defense a lot of help.

“One guy that really pushes me in practice is Charles Hopson. He never takes a play off and has that ‘dog’ mentality that makes everyone around him better. We’ve had a few heated practices against each other just from us going as hard as we do, but at the end of the day it just helps us even more.”

Huff’s physical tools are an asset to Rice. So are his intangibles.

“He’s been rock solid for us,” Rice said. “He’s been a leader for us when we needed it most.”

Now, Huff is eager to lead down the homestretch of his career. The Blue Devils will end a 21-day layoff when they visit West Greene to begin a three-game, 15-day stretch that will decide Region 1-AAA. Unicoi will conclude the season with home games against Chuckey-Doak and Johnson County.

“The main thing that I believe we need to do to finish strong these last three games is not get comfortable,” Huff said. “We need to continue to get better day in and day out and understand that we can either finish this season really bad and miss the playoffs or really good and win a region championship.”

West Greene, in its first season with Scotty Verran as coach, has played twice since Unicoi County last took the field. The Buffaloes have won two of their last three – against Cosby (21-0) and North Greene (42-14) – after an 0-4 start that included a respectable 28-21 loss to Verran’s previous team, South Greene.

“West Greene is well-coached,” Rice said. “They run the ball well and play tough on defense. It’s our last road game of the regular season, so I hope we can go down there and take care of business.”

Chances are, Huff will take care of his.