DANDRIDGE — Jefferson County’s newly installed turf field has been on display in broad daylight since its completion, but Spencer Riley can’t wait for the Patriots’ fan base to see it under the Friday night lights.
Riley will lead JCHS on its new surface as he enters his fourth season as the Patriots’ head coach, a moment he’s been waiting for since taking the job in 2016.
“The kids are really excited. We’ve gotten to coach on turf before. It’s another place to play ball,” Riley said. “It’s made our jobs as coaches a lot easier, community is fired up about it. If you’ve not seen it under the lights, it looks really good under the lights.”
The first opponent to face Jefferson County on the upgraded Leroy Shannon Field is a familiar face which JCHS has faced 33 times before — sixth-year head coach Tony Linginfelter’s Sevier County Smoky Bears.
Tanner Atkins, the Patriots’ first returning quarterback to start the year before since Austin Jenkins in 2015, is on a mission as he begins his senior year in Jefferson County’s spread-option offense. Last season, he completed 83-of-168 passes for 1,137 yards and 6 touchdowns against 7 interceptions, while also rushing for 329 yards and 5 more TDs.
Atkins will have a veteran group to protect him as the Patriots return three of their starting offensive linemen from 2018, with Beau Larrance being the lone senior of the bunch. Juniors Wesley Hickle, Dominic Schroeder, Garrett Winn and sophomore Seandavid Workman all saw varsity time on the O-line last year.
Senior wide receiver Kadarrius Wright, who caught a 42-yard touchdown pass in the Inter Mountain Conference jamboree, and Austin Lietch will give Atkins plenty of options in the passing game including returnees Mason Ledford and Kade Parker along with Isaac Sawyer and Nick Kelly.
“We’re excited to have Tanner back. He’s developed as a quarterback like you’re supposed to from your junior to senior year, a hands down change for him,” Riley said. “We feel like we have a group of receivers who are pretty talented. We’re not very deep, but we’re talented.”
The question is who will run the ball.
Seniors Josh Miller and Gage Bolin both played a part in Jefferson County’s comeback win at Sevier County a year ago, the former doing so with a 54-yard kickoff return to start the second half.
But JCHS lost the services of Kris Hawkins to graduation after a 1,547-yard rushing performance his senior year.
“We might start five different guys in five different ball games,” Riley said. “They’re all going to play. We’re trying to make sure to manage the number of snaps kids get on both sides of the ball so they’re not gassed when we get to the fourth quarter.”
Sevier County has traditionally blitzed opponents out of a three-man front, but Riley is prepared to face four- and five-man fronts on Friday night.
Carlos Perez (6-1, 234) returns to anchor Sevier County’s defensive front for his senior season, one year removed from returning an interception 61 yards for a score against JCHS. Tyler Wilson (6-3, 218, Jr.) is expected to rotate between outside linebacker and defensive end.
Senior linebackers Spencer Clabough (5-11, 182) and Caleb McKinzie (5-7, 154) along with junior Will Flynn (5-9, 231) return to the Smoky Bears defense as does sophomore strong safety Braxton White (5-10, 144).
“They play fast. They’re a fast football team. They’re not necessarily the biggest-sized kids we’ll face all year but they can run,” Riley said. “That’s going to be a challenge for us to maintain their speed defensively and make them do stuff they don’t like to do. We feel good about our passing game. We feel like we’re going to throw it when we want to this year, not when we have to.”
Bolin will play at safety for Jefferson County along with sophomore Bradee McCoy, who picked off two passes last season and is the only returning Patriot to have recorded an interception in 2018.
Miller and Kelly are currently the frontrunners for the cornerback slot while seniors Reed Manley and Andrew Manning return to lead the JCHS linebacking corps along with sophomores Ayden Houston and Lex Breeden.
Layne Holt and A.J. Baumgarder are slated to see significantly more time on Jefferson County’s defensive line, which lost three starters to graduation, as the Patriots will again base out of a four-man front. Alex Mojica, Trevor Crews, Winn, Workman and Hickle will rotate throughout the D-line.
They’ll face a Sevier County offense which features senior Sebastian Nelson (5-7, 162) and junior Jacob Lewis (5-8, 167) returning to the backfield while seniors Brayden Hurst (6-0, 180) and Dan Branton (6-1, 175) lead Sevier County’s receiving corps.
Wilson, also a tight end, and guards Franco Mendoza (5-10, 215, Sr.) and Bailey Williams (5-10, 275) will anchor the Smoky Bears’ O-line with sophomore transfer quarterback Colin Shannon (6-0, 176) taking the snaps.
“He does a really good job spinning the football. He’s not necessarily going to be a big-time runner, but he’s going to be a spinner and get it out quick and they’ll try to (run-pass-option) you to death,” Riley said of Shannon. “(Hurst) will be one of the fastest kids we’ve played all year.”
Jefferson County’s most recent two wins over Sevier County gave the Patriots a 17-16 lead in the all-time series. Prior to that, the Smoky Bears had won five straight and 10 of 12 meetings against JCHS, defeating the Patriots in the first round of the 2012 Class 6A playoffs on top of the regular season meetings. After squeaking out a 6-3 season-opening win in 2017, the Patriots erased a 21-0 second quarter deficit with Atkins throwing a 34-yard touchdown pass and Bolin scoring on a 16-yard run as JCHS prevailed 32-21.
Riley is 6-0 all-time against the Smoky Bears, 4-0 as a player and 2-0 as head coach of the Patriots. Before last season, Riley’s largest margin of victory over Sevier County was four points.
Sevier County last defeated JCHS in Dandridge in 2013, emerging victorious in a 42-35 thriller before a 63-10 triumph at Sevierville in 2014 with the series then taking a two-year hiatus.
The Patriots and Smoky Bears square off for the 34th time on Friday night, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. in Dumplin Valley.
Hancock County at Cosby
Hancock County did something it had never done in 2018 by hosting a playoff game. In 2019, the Indians are looking to accomplish something else they’ve yet to do — win at Cosby.
Although Hancock County has defeated its arch-rival in two of the last three seasons, both of those victories came in Sneedville as the Indians rolled to a 36-0 triumph in 2016 and last year’s season-opening 37-7 win.
In between those two seasons, the Eagles rallied for a 27-26 win at Virgil Ball Stadium in 2017 to drop the Indians to 0-5 all-time at Cosby.
Ethan Short is projected to be Hancock County’s workhorse out of the backfield, having rushed for 463 yards while finishing with 138 yards receiving and scoring 8 touchdowns in 2018. Of those yards, 119 of them came against Cosby in the season opener as he carried the ball 23 times and scored 2 touchdowns while catching 2 passes for 30 yards and another TD.
Fellow senior Darron Collins will join Short in Hancock County’s split-back set on offense and play at cornerback on defense.
Junior quarterback Devon Blevins started last season on defense but now takes over as the starting signal caller after an injury to his throwing hand in 2018.
Brandon Gibbs enters his fourth season as the Indians’ head coach with nearly all of his team playing on both sides of the ball.
But Hancock County does return four starters on its experienced offensive line, and last year’s leading tackler Preston Hatfield is also back for his senior campaign after recording 77 stops his junior year.
Cosby’s only score against the Indians last season came on a kickoff return, a sign of the offensive struggles to come for the Eagles in 2018.
Junior quarterback Hunter Workman is back under center to lead Cosby’s multiple-I offense after rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and scoring 9 touchdowns while passing for 4 more scores. Senior wide receiver Anthony Thomas and sophomore Dominic Cowles projected to be playmakers with Workman in the Eagles’ offense, which features five returning starters on the O-line, while also returning to Cosby’s defense.
Perhaps the best all-around athlete for ninth-year head coach Kevin Hall’s Eagles is senior Eduardo Gonzalez, the 2018 Region 1-2A Player of the Year. Gonzalez had 121 tackles, 14 of which went for a loss including 4 sacks, while also kicking 2-of-3 field goals including a long of 42 yards.
Cosby won the first seven in the rivalry which began in 2009 and leads the all-time series 8-2.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Virgil Ball Stadium on Friday night.
Union County at Cherokee
Collin Trent is back, and Cherokee is ready to make a statement.
As head coach Cody Baugh enters his fourth season with the Chiefs, he returns just five starters on offense including just one offensive lineman in center Caleb Haun.
But with Trent calling signals, the Chiefs are a dangerous team on offense. Especially with senior wide receiver Jonas Leeper back after eclipsing the 900-yard receiving mark in 2018. Micah Jones returns at wideout and Brayden Collins is back at tight end for Cherokee, which also returns running back Trent Price after he nearly reached 1,000 yards rushing a year ago.
Leading tackler Connor Smith, who had over 100 stops last season, is back at safety with newcomers Brandon Ramsey and Trenton Lamb showing promise for the Chiefs’ defensive front.
After following up a 6-5 season in 2016 with a 5-5 campaign in 2017 and just missing the playoffs, Cherokee limped to a 1-9 season in 2018 with the lone win coming in the Hawkins County Super Bowl over arch-rival Volunteer 48-27.
A win would give Cherokee its first win on its home turf since defeating Volunteer 48-7 on Sept. 15, 2017. Since then, the Chiefs have dropped eight straight games at Big Red Valley.
The Patriots did graduate much of their offense from last season, but Alonzo Creech and Zach Pierce return for their senior years in the Union County backfield, the latter also playing at linebacker. Senior offensive linemen Kristian Britt, Anthony Schneider and Wyatt Hall return to the Patriots as do senior defensive tackle William Brantley.
Third-year head coach Larry Kerr, who guided Knoxville Halls to a Class AAA state championship in 1986, has awakened the previously struggling Patriots. After snapping a 27-game losing streak in his first season, Kerr guided Union County to the playoffs last season and led the Patriots to their first winning record in program history.
Friday will mark the first-ever gridiron meeting between the schools.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. on Friday in Rogersville.
Cocke County at Campbell County
More than three decades after he last donned the Cocke County uniform, Scotty Dykes is back in Newport. This time, though, he’s the head coach at this alma mater.
After serving as offensive coordinator at Hardin Valley, Dykes took the reins of the CCHS football program following Caleb Slover’s departure after six years.
And despite losing many of last season’s playmakers to graduation, senior running back Lundon Shelton returns to the Fighting Cocks after surpassing the 1,000 yard mark and scoring 11 touchdowns in 2018.
Tyler Venerable has moved into the starting quarterback role for his senior season after seeing limited action in Cocke County’s backfield his junior season, although he did catch a 36-yard touchdown pass while recording 4 tackles for a loss and recovering two fumbles in the 2018 regular season. This year, he will take snaps for Cocke County’s newly implemented pro-style offense.
Ryder Campbell returns a linebacker and Conner Ramsey is back at DB after breaking up 6 passes with 19 tackles last season, and Stiles Moore is back on the CCHS defensive line.
Cocke County, which went 7-4 in 2018 for its first winning season since 1996 before falling at eventual Class 5A state champion in the first round of the playoffs, will face a stiff road test in Dykes’ head coaching debut.
Ninth-year Campbell County head coach Justin Price will have a new quarterback this season, as junior Joseph Paul and freshman Ethan Miller are the frontrunners to start in the Cougars’ pass-oriented offense.
Cahron Williams is back for his junior season to lead Campbell County’s receiving corps with Daymon Seiber and C.J. Allen back at running back.
Senior defensive end Javan McCulley returns to Campbell County’s defensive front with linebackers Michael Brown and Christian Tinch behind him and junior Gavin Newman back to lead the secondary.
Campbell County struggled to a 4-6 record in 2018, the Cougars’ first losing season since going 5-6 in 2015 and also the first time since 2012 Campbell County missed the postseason.
Campbell County dominated the previous two meetings, shutting out CCHS 42-0 in 2015 and winning at Newport 57-7 in 2016.
Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. on Friday night in Jacksboro.
Pigeon Forge at Claiborne
Claiborne isn’t so young anymore. The Bulldogs have taken their lumps with a young roster the past two seasons, and now Claiborne’s expectations are as high as ever as it seeks a third straight playoff berth — something the program has never done.
As head coach Nathan Medlin enters his fourth season, many of his skill position players are back and are looking to start the 2019 campaign with a state against Pigeon Forge on Friday.
Claiborne’s top rusher and top receiver from 2018 are back as running back Greg Goins and wideout Haydn Hollin return for their senior years after earning All-Region honors last season.
Two standout juniors are back as well in third-year starting quarterback Eli Stone, who passed for more than 1,200 yards as a sophomore, and running back/linebacker Storm Livesay. Both earned All-Region accolades as sophomores.
In addition, three of Claiborne’s starting offensive linemen and three of its starting defensive linemen are back for the 2019 season.
The Bulldogs’ offense shined in their final scrimmage against Lee County, Va., as the trio of Haydn Hollin, Storm Livesay and Eli Stone combined for 217 yards in just one quarter.
Livesay rushed the ball for 75 yards and caught a 12-yard pass while Hollin totaled 40 yards receiving and scored a 2-point conversion, with Stone going 5-for-5 through the air for 60 yards while rushing for 30 more.
Pigeon Forge, led by third-year head coach Adrian Watson, is seeking better results after following up a 5-5 season in 2017 with a 1-9 campaign in 2018.
Junior B.B. Parton and sophomore Brady Maples return to the Tigers backfield while senior Blake McCarter and juniors Hussein Al-Sultani and Caleb Hughes back at wideout. Senior D-tackle David Rees along with junior cornerback Quentin Quigley return to lead the Tigers defense.
Pigeon Forge holds a commanding 8-2 lead in the all-time series, which began when Claiborne opened its doors in 2003. The Tigers currently own a five-game winning streak including a 57-28 triumph at New Tazewell in 2016, the most recent meeting. Claiborne last defeated the Tigers in 2007 with a 20-14 triumph on its home turf, one year after rolling to a 74-27 win at Pigeon Forge.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. in New Tazewell on Friday.