By Keeli Parkey
An athletic and experienced team will take the field for Unicoi County High School this football season.
“I just think we have a lot more experience,” head coach Drew Rice recently told The Erwin Record. “Last year we returned four starters from that 2016 team. This year, we return 15 starters. So that hopefully should be a big difference for us. Also, I know we are a much stronger football team. Our strength numbers have gone up significantly. Coach (Mark) Peterson has done a great job getting these guys ready.”
After starting the 2017 season winning only one of their first four games, the Blue Devils rallied to win four of its last six games, finishing the regular season with a 5-5 record overall and third place in Region 1 of Class 3A. The team qualified for the playoffs with a 3-2 league record where they lost to Austin-East and finished with a 5-6 overall record. Rice said the 2017 season was a learning experience, not just for the players, but for the coaching staff.
“I think I learned just as much on what not to do, as what to do,” he said. “I think last year, especially those first two games, the staff and myself learned that we have to make sure we are putting our kids in the best possible positions to be successful. I go back and watch the South Greene and Sullivan East games probably once a month, and just think how in the world did we think that was going to work. I think all coaches do this and probably beat themselves up more than they should, because hindsight is always 20/20. As the year went on though, I think we found our groove and really played some good football for the next six games or so.
“My hope is our guys learned how to overcome some adversity and that they can count on one another,” Rice continued. “We also had a whole lot of guys who played a lot of football last year who are back this year and that experience they gained is hopefully very valuable.”
Since the end of the 2017 season, Rice said his team has focused on getting stronger.
“We have made an unbelievable commitment to our strength and conditioning program,” he added. “We go five days a week year around, minus about six weeks between the end of the season and the beginning of our offseason program. Our focus has been to become the strongest, fastest, and most explosive football team we can be. We have had some guys really make some great strides with their bodies.”
Rice said the coaching staff has also made changes to how the Blue Devils will play this season.
“We have tried to simplify somethings offensively and defensively that we want to do, so our guys can hopefully just go out there and let their athletic abilities take over and just play,” he said.
The speed of several Blue Devils will be a real asset for the 2018 team.
“We think our speed is really a strong suit for us,” Rice said. “Kody Lewis, Brett Strother and Noah White are as fast as any kids we have had here in the last 10 years or more. They all are a weapon for us with the ball in their hands; we are just going to have to find a way to ensure they all get enough touches every Friday.”
The team also has threats on the other side of the ball, according to the head coach.
“Our defensive line is going to cause a lot of people trouble as well,” Rice said. “Shane Armstrong, Drew Williams, Austin O’Dell, Danny Lowery and LJ Mitchell have all had great summers and we believe they are going to be a tough draw for the teams we play.”
Senior Brett Strother, the 2017 Region 1-3A Offensive Player of the Year, is expected to make plays all over the field again this season. Strother will play wide receiver, running back, quarterback, linebacker, safety and will return kicks.
“Brett has a chance to score anytime he touches the ball,” Rice said.
Lewis, a junior, was the team’s leading rusher in 2017.
“He has unbelievable straight-line speed,” Rice said. “He has put on some weight and we really think he is primed to have a huge year for us. He will play running back and safety. He gives us a home run threat offensively and should be able to run down about any play from the defensive side.”
White will play running back, receiver and linebacker in his senior season.
“Noah may very well be our most valuable player considering all he does for us,” Rice said. “He has gained about 25 pounds since last season. He is a very tough kid that cares a whole lot about this football program and it being successful. He is everything you could ask for in a football player.”
Armstrong, another senior, has started for the Blue Devils since his sophomore season.
“If we can keep him healthy, he will be a nightmare for other teams to block,” Rice said. He has been a kid who has lived in the weight room the last two years. He has a nose for the football and plays with great leverage. He will play defensive line, running back and will also be our punter. He brings a lot of experience and toughness to our football team.”
Unlike most players his age, sophomore quarterback Brock Thompson comes into the 2018 season with a year of experience under his belt.
“I think the experience Brock got last season is extremely valuable,” Rice said. “Although he is just a sophomore, he has the experience of a junior or senior already. Not to mention, the success he has had at his position; it’s just tremendous. He threw for 1,200 yards in just 9 games last year. He is a special talent and we are very blessed to have him for the next three years.”
Rice said he expects the 2018 Blue Devils to not only qualify for the playoffs, but to do more.
“We have set some high expectations for ourselves,” he said. Our goal is to win a region championship. We feel like if we can stay healthy, and continue to get better as the season goes on, that we will be playing in October for a championship. Making the playoffs is now an expectation for us. If we can make that happen again this year, these seniors will have gone to the playoffs all four years of their careers which hasn’t happened in over 30 years here.”
UCHS will again play in Region 1 of Class 3A against Chuckey-Doak, Claiborne, Johnson County, North Greene and West Greene.
The 2018 campaign will begin on Friday, Aug. 17, when the Blue Devils host South Greene at Gentry Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Joining Rice on the coaching staff this season are assistants Malcolm Foreman, Jason Hensley, Brandon Adams, Mark Peterson, Jordan Cooper, Devin Whitehead, Trevor Berry and Eli Barnwell.
“These kids, our coaching staff, and our Gridiron Club have worked tirelessly to create a program that our entire community can be proud of,” Rice said. “We spend a lot of time talking to our guys about how they are viewed as a football player first, and everything else second. We try to hold each other accountable for everything we do with that in mind.
“I would just like to encourage everyone to come and support these young men who have given a whole heck of a lot of themselves, for something that’s much bigger than them,” Rice continued. “Our hope is to put a product on the field every Friday night that is worth the community’s time, but more importantly to be something they can be proud of.”
The remaining 2018 schedule is as follows (* denotes region game):
• Aug. 24, at Sullivan East
• Aug. 31, vs North Greene*
• Sept. 7 at Happy Valley
• Sept. 14 at Claiborne*
• Sept. 21 vs Sullivan Central
• Sept. 28 vs Chuckey-Doak*
• Oct. 5 at Unaka
• Oct. 12 at West Greene*
• Oct. 19 Bye Week
• Oct. 26 vs Johnson County*