By Trey Williams
Unicoi County’s football team didn’t wait to compile a 5-0 record to celebrate. The Blue Devils have been throwing a block party every week.
With an offensive line that head coach Drew Rice describes as the best during his decade back in Erwin, the Blue Devils are unbeaten on the scoreboard and in the trenches.
Seniors Dawson Hampton (6-0, 280) and Caleb Swinehart (6-4, 225) and juniors Esteban Mendoza (6-2, 220), Ty Owen (6-0, 215) and Brody Rasnick (6-3, 230) are paving the way for what the Devils hope will be their first conference championship since 1991.
Rice, also the offensive line coach, said the O-line has been impressive in all four games – the win this past Friday came via a forfeit to Claiborne due to COVID-19 – as well as in scrimmages with Cocke County, Lakeway Christian and Volunteer.
“Those guys haven’t been pushed back any,” Rice said, “as far as not winning the line of scrimmage.”
Swinehart has helped set the tone on and off the field.
“Caleb didn’t play the O-line until high school,” Rice said. “He actually played quarterback in middle school. He played tight end his freshman year and I went to him his sophomore year and said, ‘Man, I need a tackle.’ And he was like, ‘Whatever you need coach.’
“He’s everything you’d want in a program kid. He leads by example. I’d take a hundred of him if I could. He’s just bought in and I think the other guys see that and want to emulate that.”
Opening holes is gratifying for the guys up front.
“We pride ourselves on being able to run the ball,” Swinehart said. “We were freshmen and sophomores when Kody (Lewis) was running for all those yards. And learning for three years from guys like Nick Farnor and Roby (Lemmon) really helped us with our form and how we worked out.
“I feel like we came into the season with high expectations for ourselves as an O-line. The way all five of us worked over the winter and spring in the weight room just boosted those expectations.”
Hampton and Swinehart don’t want to leave anything in the tank during their last go-round.
“Swinehart and I have talked a lot about our last chances, starting after last season, and we haven’t taken anything for granted,” Hampton said. “In the weight room, being able to be back together (after a non-offseason due to COVID-19), everyone looks at the board of records and it fuels competition, which has produced gains that our program hasn’t seen before. Coach Dawg (Mark Peterson) fuels us in the weight room.”
Winning, of course, is fertile ground for harmony, but Rice senses a camaraderie in his unit that would withstand adversity.
“Those five all seem to have a real strong bond with each other and I think they take a whole lot of pride in what they do,” Rice said. “And they understand the importance of what they do in terms of for us to be successful they’ve gotta get it done.”
The Devils’ linemen embrace the dirty work.
“Always, at every level, it’s kind of a thankless job,” Rice said. “They’re not recording stats and they’re not scoring touchdowns. So it’s a real selfless position.”
Oddly enough, Unicoi County graduated what was arguably its most talented lineman last season.
“I think we had questions after losing a leader on the line like Rodrigo Castellon last season,” Hampton said, “but after getting TO (Owen) and Brody added to our line this summer we had a feeling we could do something special this season. We don’t have just one that can do it all. We are a family up there. We may not outweigh other lines but we will outfight them in the trench.”
Rice’s consistency has aided the group’s performance.
“It’s not any different with Coach Rice being our head coach and O-line coach,” Swinehart said. “He expects the most out of us either way. Coach Rice is a great coach. He is real with you and won’t BS you. He will tell you how it is. Then when we make a good play he is the first to congratulate us.”
The Blue Devils are getting congratulated a lot around town after starting 5-0 for the first time since Louis Thompson’s team opened with nine straight wins in 1984.
“This question gets asked of us often about how we feel without a loss so far,” Hampton said, “but on the inside with us we are not satisfied until we bring home the region championship. That has been our goal all along, and as seniors we have been a part of teams that have been so close and felt the heartbreak of not quite making it.”
Skill players such as quarterback Bryson Peterson, running back Nehemiah Edwards, athlete Caleb Pelaez and receiver/tight end Lucas Slagle can make grunt work rewarding.
“Having such great backs like Nemo (Edwards) and Caleb can really hide mistakes we make,” Hampton said. “But we try to give them a crease and love to watch them work once they hit the second level. I have played center with Bryson since we were probably eight years old. So we have a great chemistry with each other and I think there is a since of security when each of us are in together.”
Pelaez and Edwards have a blue-collar mentality, too.
“They work so hard to become better every single day and they always come to us after a big run or touchdown and tell us good job,” Swinehart said. “They are great teammates. Who wouldn’t wanna block for them. It’s great when we can block our guys for about two seconds and look up and seem them off to the races and run down and celebrate with them.
“And Lucas is pretty much one of us. He plays tight end, so he gets down and dirty with us when he comes in the box and blocks with us. We all have love when he goes up and gets the ball after blocking with us during the drive.”
Unicoi County is scheduled to visit Sullivan East on Friday.
Last week’s forfeit gave Rice and his staff four more days to prepare for the Patriots (1-4).
“They do some good things,” Rice said. “I know their record’s not great but that Grainger win is an impressive win. They play a tough schedule, play in a tough league. So we’re certainly not overlooking ‘em by any means.
“They run the Air Raid on offense and they spread the ball around. They’ve got a couple of really good-looking kids on the outside they try to get the ball to. They’ve got a good little running back. So we’re gonna have to be ready to go.”
Success hasn’t spoiled the Blue Devils yet, and Swinehart doesn’t anticipate complacency becoming an obstacle.
“Being 5-0 is great but we are just getting started,” Swinehart said. “Our main goal is the region championship. It’s something that this town hasn’t had in a while in football. And to go out as seniors and win the first conference championship in, I think, 30 years is our main goal.”