By Keeli Parkey
The Unicoi County Middle School football team is 1-1 after the first two games of the 2017 season.
“We started the season in mid-July when it was very hot,” head coach Larry Howell told The Erwin Record. “The team got off to a great start as we had close to 40 players show up for the first practice. The coaches started by working on the basics of football in blocking and tackling. Coaches Jonathan Cooper, Cane Cannon and Bodhi Bradford worked with basic fundamentals of blocking with the offensive line. Coach Travis Griffith worked with wide receivers on route running, stalk blocking, and catching the football. I worked with quarterbacks and running backs on agility, ball security and formations related to the playbook. It was a learning experience for all as the coaches got to know the players strengths and the players got to learn the basics of football and the coaching styles that each coach uses to get the most out of the players.”
The Jr. Blue Devils are working in a complex system.
“We have over 60 plays in our offensive playbook,” Howell said. “That is a lot for players to understand because each one has its own unique set of circumstances in order for it to work. We also have played several defenses with several stunts and coverage in each one.”
On Aug. 22, the Jr. Blue Devils defeated “a good Sullivan North team” 12-8 to start the season with a 1-0 record, according to Howell.
“We had a great second half,” Howell said of the game against North. “Our game-winning drive ate up all of the fourth quarter clock except 1:20. We had a great kickoff and pinned them back inside their 20-yard line which left them little time to do anything. Our defense kept them pinned back as time ran out.”
The Jr. Blue Devils’ first road game led to their first loss of the season.
“We had our first road game at Church Hill and ran into the best, if not one of the best teams, in our conference,” Howell said. “We were defeated, 40-0. They had great players and were well coached. I felt our kids were as not focused as they needed to be so we have been working on that in practice this week and hopefully when we go on the road this week to play Bluff City, we will do better at being focused on the task ahead of us.”
In practice and in games, the Jr. Blue Devil defense has proved itself as the strength of the squad.
“Coaches Cooper, Cannon, and Bradford work with defensive ends and defensive tackles,” Howell said. “Coach Griffith works with defensive backs and I work with linebackers. Our players have shown a knack for toughness and tackling. It is the first experience in football for a lot of these kids and learning the concepts of team defense as well as offense has been a difficult hurdle to cross for the coaches but we have made a tremendous improvement over the last month.
“We have worked hard on special teams. Kicking, punting and covering kicks have shown improvement. Our expectations for them is to improve daily and build on what each day’s lessons bring. We want to play a variety of defenses and be more balanced in running and passing the football on offense. We are not there yet, but we are making daily progress.”
The team has been successful this season thanks to a total team effort, according to Howell.
“I stress to the team that football is the ultimate team game and no one is above the other,” he said. “It takes all of us to be successful from the strongest eighth grader to the smallest sixth grader. All of our players have had an impact on what we do. The starters cannot have a meaningful practice without the non-starters giving them a competitive look in drills and scrimmages. This makes the starters better and the non-starters more ready when their turn comes up in a game.”
At the end of the day, being a Jr. Blue Devil football player is about representing Unicoi County and the middle school, Howell said.
“No matter what the scores are the rest of the year, I want our players to develop a love for the game and learn what it is to work hard at making yourself a better person, player and teammate,” he added. “It is a big honor to wear the blue and white and represent Unicoi County. Some of the best memories I have are from when I played football for Unicoi County. It taught me dedication, self discipline and teamwork. I tell our players that they represent about 10 percent of the eligible boys at the middle school and football is the toughest sport to play or there would be more of them out. They should walk the halls with pride knowing they have stuck it out through the hard preseason and now through a quarter of the season.
“I hope they will play the game in high school and get from it what I have been so fortunate to experience. Our players have made tremendous strides from the first day of practice. I know they will continue to improve as the season goes on.”
The Jr. Blue Devils are scheduled to travel to Bluff City for a game on Thursday, Sept. 7, at 6 p.m. They will host Colonial Heights at Gentry Stadium on Tuesday, Sept 12, at 6 p.m.