(Editor’s Note: This article was published before the cancellation of the Friday, Sept. 17, Homecoming game was made necessary because of the COVID-19 situation in Claiborne County.)
By Trey Williams
The Unicoi County football team is 4-0 for the first time since 1984 and 5-foot-8, 150-pound junior Caleb Pelaez is probably as big of a factor in the fast start as anyone.
Pelaez was one of five different Blue Devils to score a touchdown in Friday’s 35-6 defeat of Happy Valley at Gentry Stadium. His 18-yard TD in the middle of the third quarter concluded the scoring.
But Pelaez doesn’t necessarily have to throw a block to help create TDs for teammates. During pre-snap, opposing defenders’ eyes are like moths and Pelaez is a bright light.
In fact, he was bugging defenders on the play in which Bryson Peterson connected with Lucas Slagle for a 13-yard TD pass on Friday night. It gave Unicoi County a 22-0 lead in the second quarter.
“Caleb gets so much attention,” Unicoi coach Drew Rice said. “So we’re constantly motioning him and moving him around, and eyes just go there. And we sent him out on a wheel route – they saw it on film – and we put Lucas on a post and Bryson threw a strike. Lucas went up and got it in the end zone.
“It was a really cool play. That was third down, too. I think that put a nail in ‘em there at a crucial point.”
Pelaez leads Unicoi with nine receptions for 72 yards and he’s the second-leading rusher (21 carries, 196 yards, two TDs) behind Nehemiah Edwards (40-319-5).
He’s also the fifth-leading tackler and has returned an interception 44 yards for a score. Pelaez plays physically.
“We ran a sweep the other night and the kid came up and Caleb just trucked him,” Rice said. “And Caleb might weigh 140 pounds. And he can do anything. He catches it well. He plays receiver, plays running back. He returns kicks. He plays safety. He played corner all of last year and is probably one of the best corners that I’ve ever coached. But he’s playing safety now because that’s where we need him.”
Rice chuckled recalling an anecdote from Pelaez’s freshman season prior to a game with Claiborne.
“He wasn’t starting, of course,” Rice said, “but we’re warming up and I told Coach (Chris) Bogart before the game, ‘He’s the next lightning bolt we’re gonna have down the road.’ I was thinking a year from then or two years from then. And we got up in that game and put him deep on a punt return and he catches it and takes it 60 yards for a touchdown.”
With players such as the 6-foot-6 Slagle, Peterson and Edwards, who scored from 63 yards out Friday night on the first play from scrimmage, Pelaez can get overlooked.
“I think probably at this point he has been the unsung hero of what we do,” Rice said. “Even as a junior, Caleb is probably pound for pound, the best football player I’ve coached. Again, pound for pound, all-around, what he does at his size is just incredible. He’s been a huge part of this start.”
So has Peterson, a senior who is in his first season as a full-time starter. The 6-foot, 155-pounder passed for two TDs and ran for another against Happy Valley. The other touchdown pass went to 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior Logan Groom.
Peterson is 21 of 33 passing for 248 yards, four TDs and one interception.
“Having Nehemiah, Caleb and Lucas is nice,” Peterson said. “And it makes my job easier just being able to hand the ball off to them and knowing they can break one and have a big run at any point. Having them opens everything up in the passing game as well since they draw so much attention in the backfield. Having Lucas is also nice knowing I can just kinda throw it up to him and let him go get it. He is such a big target it’s hard to miss him. All of our receivers do a great job.”
And Unicoi is not just a finesse team this season.
“Our O-line and D-line have done a great job so far,” Peterson said. “Our O-line gives me plenty of time to sit back there and really see the whole field. So a lot of credit goes to them.”
Rice said the offensive line might have been the most pleasant surprise.
“And it’s probably more offensive than defensive just because last year we struggled on the offensive line so much,” Rice said. “I can say that because I do the offensive line. Even going back to our scrimmages with a good Volunteer team, a 5A Cocke County team and Lakeway Christian – in six different outings I feel like we’ve controlled the line of scrimmage. And I know that’s not been the case the last 10 years.”
Dawson Hampton and Caleb Swinehart are the only seniors on the offensive line, which includes juniors Esteban Mendoza, Ty Owen and Brody Rasnick. And the defensive line – Owen, Rasnick, Slagle and Mendoza – are all juniors.
“There’s no one on the defensive line over 250 and just one on the offensive line over 250,” Rice said. “It’s not like we’re 300 pounds across the board, you know, but we’ve got guys that can move. They’re strong kids that play with some fire. And I think that’s a recipe for success a lot of times.”
The win against Happy Valley was the Blue Devils’ third straight in the series after dropping five straight to the Warriors. Unicoi defeated Happy Valley handily last season and went to Claiborne the following week feeling good about things. That wasn’t the feeling on the ride home – not after Claiborne got five TDs and fumble recovery from Storm Livesay (now at Carson-Newman) in a 48-7 romp.
“Our performance down there last year – not taking anything away from them, but that was the worst performance we’ve had since I’ve been head coach,” Rice said. “We went down there last year and just did not play the way we’re supposed to play. Granted, they’ve lost those kids (to graduation). Livesay was as complete a player as we’ve played against. He was literally on every special team, forcing fumbles on defense. …
“That’s why he’s playing at the next level. We’re certainly glad he’s not there anymore. Livesay didn’t play two years ago and we kind of overlooked them coming off that big win against Happy Valley. … We’ve gotta get that taste out of our mouths, for sure.”
The ’84 team that started 4-0 ended up 10-2 and the Blue Devils advanced to the quarterfinals for the first of two straight seasons.
“Starting the season off being 4-0 is a great feeling and has given us a lot of confidence,” Peterson said. “But at the end of the day, we are 0-0 in the region. So being 4-0 means nothing to us right now because we’re going for a regional championship.
“Playing Claiborne this week has already been something we have been talking about, knowing what happened last year getting beat 48-7. So that is in the back of our mind and we don’t want the same outcome. We have to be focused and locked in this week and need to have a good week of preparation.”
Junior Garrett Gaddy and senior Isaiah Smith are tied for the team lead with 23 tackles apiece. Mendoza is averaging 42.2 yards per punt (five punts).