Jefferson County at Science Hill
Friday, 7:30 p.m. — Kermit Tipton Stadium

DANDRIDGE — Special teams play has been an adventure for Jefferson County this season, and it didn’t take the Patriots’ Week 4 opponent long to capitalize.

Knox West never looked back after returning the opening kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown, building a 49-0 halftime lead before calling off the dogs in a 49-22 win over the Patriots.

“It’s plagued us,” JCHS coach Spencer Riley said of the Patriots’ special teams.

Jefferson County (3-1, 1-0 Region 1-6A), which also surrendered a kickoff return touchdown against Sevier County, missed its lone extra point attempt before adding a pair of 2-point conversions late, and one of the Patriots’ eight punts went for just 7 yards.

One of the few bright spots in the kicking game was Gage Bolin, who averaged 32.4 yards on 7 punts.

“Gage is an athletic kid who can do whatever we ask him, and he’s willing to do it too,” Riley noted.

Seeking better special teams play and a 2-0 start in conference action, Jefferson County travels the opposite direction this week to Johnson City as the Patriots face Science Hill (1-3, 1-0).

Jefferson County’s defense, which has made a name for itself with 19 sacks in its first three games, couldn’t penetrate the backfield nearly as well against Knox West as Reed Manley recorded the Patriots’ lone stop behind the line of scrimmage. The Rebels gained 208 yards on 31 rushing attempts, an average of 6.7 yards per carry.

Manley still leads the JCHS defense in sacks with 3 while Logan Brewer, Zach Allison, A.J. Baumgardner, Seandavid Workman and Andrew Manning all have 2. Bolin and J.P. Mills each have 1 interception.

“Reed Manley making the position change (from linebacker to defensive end), he’s done a great job for us,” Riley said. “Kid’s never played that position a day in his life. He’s gone in there and bought into what we do and he’s flying around and rushing the passer, doing a really good job for us.”

While the Hilltoppers are winless in non-conference play with home losses to Elizabethton (28-20) and Greeneville (33-24) and a 62-34 loss at David Crockett, all ranked in their classification’s top five, Science Hill won its conference opener at Hardin Valley 52-14.

But the Hilltoppers did squander a 21-0 lead against Greeneville in Week 4.

Tenth-year head coach Stacy Carter’s spread offense will present another challenge to the JCHS defense.

Senior quarterback Connor Batchelder (6-1, 180) has thrown for 843 yards and 12 touchdowns against 6 interceptions through four games in 2019. His best outing came against Hardin Valley as he completed 18-of-27 passes for 340 yards against the Hawks.

Senior wide receiver Solomon Dunn (6-3, 185) and sophomore Cole Torbett (5-10, 160) have been Batchelder’s favorite targets. Through the first three games, Dunn had 12 receptions for 238 yards and a pair of TDs while Torbett caught 18 passes for 217 yards and a TD. Batchelder found senior running back Braden Anderson (6-0, 185) from 1 and 20 yards and junior tight end Andrew Kanady (6-0, 185) from 6 yards for his 3 TD passes against Greeneville.

“They’re good receivers, man. We need to get some help back there, and we’ll have to play man coverage with them I’m sure,” Riley said. “We’ve got to stop the run first and foremost and then do some stuff in the secondary to cause them some problems there.”

Senior running back Chris Thomas (5-9, 205) had gained 459 yards on the ground, 634 in all and 7 touchdowns in three contests before leaving last week’s game against Greeneville with an injury. Fellow senior Malik Bowman (5-10, 195) will likely get the call if Thomas can’t go.

Offensively, Jefferson County couldn’t get going until it was too late against Knox West.

Senior quarterback Tanner Atkins did complete 9-of-15 passes for 158 yards, including a 72-yard scoring toss to Isaac Sawyer after keeping for a 12-yard touchdown run. Atkins is 37-of-61 for 571 yards and 4 touchdowns against 3 picks through the air this season, in addition to his 44 carries for 297 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns.

Josh Miller gained 39 yards on 6 carries and scored the Patriots’ first touchdown from 7 yards out.

Austin Lietch also pulled down a 59-yard reception with Kade Parker gaining 19 yards on 3 catches.

“Austin has been a big surprise and so has Isaac,” Riley said. “Having Kade back helps a lot. Kade is a really good athlete. He helps give us three reliable receivers any given time that we can go to.”

Senior defensive back Nicholas Copenhaver (5-10, 170) recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass against Greeneville last week.

It was Copenhaver’s second straight week with an interception as he picked off one against Hardin Valley. Senior cornerback Joshua Santiago (6-0, 165) intercepted two Hawks passes in the win, during which senior defensive end Alec Hillman (6-0, 225) and fellow senior middle linebacker Kain Rogers (5-11, 230) both had sacks.

Senior defense lineman Jaiden Miles (6-0, 295) also helps anchor Science Hill’s four-man base defense.

“For the most part, (our players’) attitude has been great and they’re ready to go back to work, and they know they can’t have that performance (at Knox West) and win on Friday nights,” Riley said. “They’ve seen it, so they know what the expectations are.”

Science Hill holds a 13-10 lead in the all-time series and has won four of the last five meetings including last year’s 28-26 thriller at Jefferson County. But the Patriots won the last meeting at Kermit Tipton Stadium, erasing a 14-0 deficit to stun the Hilltoppers 31-14 in 2017. The Patriots’ last loss in Johnson City was a 48-17 setback in 2015.

The Patriots and Hilltoppers renew their rivalry at 7:30 p.m. Friday night at Kermit Tipton Stadium.