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Devils beat Madison, 35-14, will face Happy Valley Sept. 9

Erwin Record Photo by Earl Neikirk • Nehemiah Edwards is on track to become only the second running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season in school history.

By Trey Williams

Sports Writer

It’s early, but Unicoi County senior running back Nehemiah Edwards is on track to become the Blue Devils’ second running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.

Kody Lewis, Unicoi County’s all-time leading rusher (4,267 yards), produced the program’s lone 2,000 yard season. Edwards has piled up 568 yards in three games after rushing 21 times for 227 yards and three TDs in a 35-14 defeat of Madison (North Carolina) on Friday.

The Blue Devils’ 3-0 start is more rewarding for Edwards than his rushing numbers.

“This team has the chance to be great,” Edwards said, “and maybe even rival Kody’s junior season team.”

The win against Madison included a 99-yard TD run by Edwards – the second 99-yard TD of his career.

“He had one of those his sophomore year in the Johnson County game the last game of the year before the playoffs,” Unicoi County coach Drew Rice said. “To have two 99-yard touchdown runs in your career — that’s something, for sure. Here’s the scary thing about Nehemiah: except for the opening drive of the Madison game, he hasn’t played in second half in two of our three games.”

And when the Blue Devils do have a tough game that requires four quarters from Edwards, he’s the type of back that tends to get stronger as the game unfolds. He’s a weight room beast – so much so that strength coach/running backs coach Mark Peterson occasionally has to tell him to dial it back a bit.

“Nehemiah’s got breakaway speed … but he is as physical a runner as we’ve ever had,” Rice said.

The offensive line has given Edwards room to roam.

“The O-line has been astounding,” Edwards said, “especially in Friday’s game.”

Ty Engle continues to come on at quarterback. He was 7-of-9 passing for 134 yards and a touchdown against Madison.

“Ty has also been performing well,” Edwards said. “This is his first year starting. So he just needs to get the jitters out and he’ll be an excellent quarterback.”

Engle opened the scoring Friday with a 21-yard TD pass to Mason Hensley.

“The touchdown pass to Mason Hensley Friday night was beautiful,” Rice said. “I mean, he couldn’t have thrown it any better. … He keeps improving and I feel like he’s got a really good grasp of our offense. And, you know, he’s in a good situation. He’s got all these weapons around him and a really good offensive line. And that certainly makes his life easier.”

The Blue Devils’ other TD against Madison came when Logan Groom scored on a blocked kick.

Unicoi County led 35-0 early in the fourth quarter. Rice was happy to spend the majority of another half getting second- and third-stringers game action.

“We thought going into the game that our depth would really be a strength for us,” Rice said. “And it was. We were able to rotate some guys and rest some guys, whether it be on the offensive or defensive line.

“But I felt like we really kind of leaned on ’em (linemen) when we wanted to there, and that was good to see. When you run the football and stop the run defensively, that’s usually a recipe for winning football.”

Defensive coordinator Jason Hensley and defensive line coach Brandon Adams have the defensive front causing havoc. Lucas Slagle has four sacks and six tackles for loss. Garrett Gaddy has three sacks and six tackles for loss. Blake Edney has three tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

“Blake Edney and Garrett Gaddy have had amazing defensive games week in and week out,” Edwards said.

The Blue Devils have recovered six of the 10 fumbles they’ve forced and intercepted six passes.

“Coach Adams does our defensive line, and he does a great job with them,” Rice said. “I feel like we’re very, very disciplined, up front and I like the technique those guys are playing with. I do think we were pretty crisp on both sides of the ball Friday night.”

Specials teams weren’t shabby either. Esteban Mendoza, who’d been slowed by an ailing knee prior to Friday, launched a 50-yard punt against Madison.

Unicoi County will visit Happy Valley on Friday.

“They’re one of the best-coached teams we play, if not the best-coached team we play year in and year out,” Rice said. “I’ve got a ton of respect for Coach (Jason) Jarrett. With the success that they’ve had during his time there, you can tell that their coached well. …

“They’ve got some big kids up front, and defensively, they’re always really tough. So I think we’re gonna have to have to bring it again this week.”

Granted, the Blue Devils are usually sky-high for the Warriors, who are arguably their most heated rival.

“Our guys usually get up for this one,” Rice said. “So motivation shouldn’t be hard to come by this week.”

Rice intercepted Todd Caldwell in a loss to Happy Valley during his sophomore season, and came up with another interception to help preserve victory his senior season.

“I’ll always remember that,” Rice said. “It kind of sealed the game for us in a win. … I still have people I’ll see in the summer – fans or people in the community – and they’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll be at the Happy Valley game.’ We’re anxious to get over there and get it going.”

Slowing Edwards will be the Warriors’ primary task. Maintaining the pace Lewis kept during a 2,025-yard season as a junior in 2018 will surely improve Unicoi County to 4-0.

“I watched Kody (Lewis)

from the sidelines my freshman year,” Edwards said. “So I really learned a lot from him. Those lessons will be useful in this upcoming rival game, and I can’t wait until game time.”