By Trey Williams
The Unicoi County football team’s historic season reaped more rewards last week when the All-Region 1-3A team was released.
Sixth-year Blue Devils head coach Drew Rice and junior running back Nehemiah Edwards each received unprecedented honors. Edwards was named the Region 1-3A player of the year and Rice won his first coach of the year award after guiding the Blue Devils to an undefeated region record and a 10-2 season that included a first-round playoff win against Austin-East.
Senior linebacker Isaiah Smith was named the co-defensive player of the year for the second straight season and junior Esteban Mendoza, who will have an opportunity to punt at the collegiate level, was the co-defensive lineman of the year.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Edwards rushed 169 times for 1,256 yards (7.4 ypc) and 20 touchdowns. Also a linebacker, Edwards was seventh on the team with 41 tackles and intercepted a pass.
“Nehemiah is very deserving,” Rice said. “Believe it or not, this is our first player of the year award since reclassification. We have had offensive and defensive players of the year before, but never a true player of the year.”
Edwards’ dedication stands out, even among a locker room of dedicated players.
“He deserves every accolade and award he gets,” Rice said. “As I have said before, he approaches the game differently than most high school kids.”
Smith led the Blue Devils with 109 tackles, which were 46 more than any teammate. Fourteen of Smith’s tackles occurred behind the line of scrimmage, including two sacks.
Smith also intercepted a pass and forced a fumble.
“Isaiah has been everything you could ever ask for in a young man who comes through your program,” Rice said. “Saying he’s been rock-solid would be selling him short. This is his second year in a row winning this award and we are extremely proud of him. He will be great at whatever he chooses to do in life.”
Mendoza tallied team highs in tackles for loss (15), sacks (five) and forced fumbles (five). He also recovered three fumbles, which he returned a combined 58 yards. Mendoza returned one fumble for a TD.
Of course, Mendoza is best known as a punter. He averaged 42.0 yards on 27 punts and started teams inside the 20-yard line 13 times.
He made 10 of 13 PAT attempts and 1 of 2 field goal attempts.
“Esteban has as high of a ceiling as any kid I have ever coached,” Rice said. “Everyone talks about his kicking and punting, but I believe that doesn’t tell the story of him as football player. For him to be named the defensive lineman of the year, I think that’s very telling of how special he is. I’m excited to see what the future holds for him.”
Certainly, the future appears bright for Rice. In fact, with the vast majority of his roster and starters returning, he’ll surely be the preseason favorite to win coach of the year again in 2022.
Rice (38-25), who played on the Blue Devils’ 2006 playoff team, succeeded Glenn White after the first four games of the 2016 system. He led the Devils to their first 9-1 regular season since 1984.
“I’m honored, but the credit goes to these young men and my staff,” Rice said. “The buy-in we have across the board is the reason for our success. I’m very excited about the direction our program is headed.”
Unicoi County had nine other first-team selections: Blake Edney, Logan Groom, Brayden Hendrickson, Ty Johnson, Caleb Pelaez, Ty Owen, Bryson Peterson, Lucas Slagle and Caleb Swinehart.
The All-Region 1-3A second team included Jonathan Crutchfield, Garrett Gaddy, Dawson Hampton, Brody Rasnick and Jay Snyder.
Adam Ebernickel was the Blue Devils’ representative on the Academic All-Region 1-3A team.