By Trey Williams
Junior Nehemiah Edwards reached the 1,000-yard plateau in Mountain City while helping Unicoi County’s football team finish on top of Region 1-3A.
Edwards rushed 11 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns – all in the first half – and surpassed the coveted rushing mark as the Blue Devils rolled to a 58-21 victory Friday night.
Unicoi County (9-1) will host Austin-East (2-7) on Friday at 7 p.m. in the opening round of the playoffs.
Exceeding 1,000 yards while helping Unicoi County wrap up a 9-1 regular-season record – the ’84 team was the only other to go 9-1 in the playoff era – made for a storybook night for Edwards, who was quick to distribute credit to quarterback Bryson Peterson and friends.
“Honestly, this season has been amazing,” Edwards said. “I enjoyed every bit of it, on and off the field. Rushing for 1,000 yards was one of the goals I had set for myself at the beginning of the season, so I’m quite happy with that.
“But if it wasn’t for my O-line and blocking backs it never would have happened. The pass game was a huge help. Bryson would make incredible plays and help make the defense back off of the run. The somewhat balanced offense has come a long way and helped the team out tremendously.”
Eight different Devils scored touchdowns against the Longhorns on a night when the reserves played the second half. Isaiah Smith, Blake Edney and Nolan Bennett each rushed for a touchdown. Peterson threw a 36-yard TD pass to Brayden Hendrickson in the first quarter and Ty Engle threw a 59-yard TD pass to Hunter Clouse in the fourth quarter.
“I was really pleased in how we played,” Unicoi County coach Drew Rice said. “It was 40-0 in the second quarter. You go from that to in ’17 and ’18 when they beat us and won the region those two years. And it goes in cycles. I think Coach (Don) Kerley does a great job.
“For us to play like that and be that – I mean I don’t use this word much, but to be that dominant, I was really proud of our guys. We had eight different guys score a touchdown. I don’t know if we’ve ever had that happen, certainly not since I’ve been coaching.”
Bransan Salts opened the second half with a 77-yard kick return that stretched the lead to 46-0. Another score on a return came when Caleb Pelaez returned a fumble that was forced by Lucas Slagle 59 yards.
It was the second defensive touchdown this season for Pelaez, who has also rushed for two TDs.
“That’s just Caleb being Caleb – right place at the right time and there wasn’t anybody gonna catch him,” Rice said. “Lucas played it great from defensive end. He deserves a ton of credit on that play and Caleb was right there. Caleb was actually on the ground and kind of assisted in the tackle, and was athletic enough to get up, pick it up and have the awareness to get out of there with it.”
Getting out of conference play without a loss was satisfying for Rice. The Blue Devils’ lone loss was a 28-0 setback against Cloudland in the rain the week after a big regional victory at Chuckey-Doak.
“I guess it’s the competitor in me, but I still have a hard time not being hung up on the Cloudland game,” Rice said. “But how we played in the region, I’m very, very proud of that. We’ve been a game away for three years, especially that (Chuckey-Doak) game in ’19 when it just felt like we had one just fall through our hands. We were up 10 down there at Chuckey-Doak Kody’s (Lewis) senior year and found a way to lose it. That one still bothers me. I guess in my fifth full year to finally do it with these guys – I feel like this probably the best coaching job we’ve done as a staff.
“And the thing that’s really encouraging about it is we’ve got eight seniors and four of ‘em play a lot. Most of the guys we talk about every week are gonna be back next year playing the same schedule. That’s exciting, and we’re gonna inherit a really good incoming freshman class next year.”
Rice said the Blue Devils better be excited about playing a 2-7 Austin-East team or their playoff run won’t get out of the starter’s blocks.
The Roadrunners beat Northview Academy 42-8 at home on Sept. 17. Unicoi County defeated Northview on the road 22-15 in the season opener on Aug. 20.
Austin-East’s stringent schedule included Alcoa, Fulton, Clinton, Brainerd and South Pittsburg.
“Their schedule was brutal,” Rice said. “It’s like my senior year of basketball we were like 30-3 going into the substate game and Austin-East came up here. They’d gotten beat by Fulton the week before in the regional championship game by like 30. I don’t even think they had a winning record. And we were 30-3 and they came up here and just wore us out. That was the last high school game I ever played. …
“Probably the average fan will look at the records, but in reality Northview’s the only common opponent and they beat ‘em a lot better than we did. I think if you’re looking at it objectively, there could be an argument that they would be the favorite going in just based on the strength of schedule.”
Not that Rice is suggesting his Blue Devils are going in overmatched.
“We certainly know we’re gonna have more than our hands full, but at the same time, I feel like we match up okay,” he said. “I feel like we’re definitely clicking right now. We’ve been blessed with health this year and we’ve got a lot of good things going our way. So it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out. …
“We told the guys we’ve tied for the best record in the playoff era. The ’84 team went 9-1. It’s only been done one other time. We were like, ‘That’s great and that’s awesome, and whenever we get done we’ll really kind of reflect on that. But right now, we’ve got a chance to have a signature win against a Knoxville school at home.’”
Edwards has carried 126 times for 1,033 yards (8.2 ypc) and 16 touchdowns. Peterson is 47-of-81 passing for 605 yards, six TDs and four interceptions. Hendrickson has 12 catches for 191 yards and three TDs.
Smith leads the Devils with 83 tackles. Pelaez is second with 52.
Esteban Mendoza has a team-high 12 tackles for loss and is tied with Slagle for the team lead with four sacks.
The Devils did celebrate the regular season with a dinner at Outback Steakhouse in Johnson City on Saturday. Outback general manager Mark Hendrix played football at Unicoi County.
“He’s great to us,” Rice said. “I can’t say enough about all the things he does for us. We’re very fortunate to have people like that who support us.”
Season passes aren’t honored for playoff games. Tickets for Friday’s game can be purchased for $8 online or $10 at the gate.