This time last year, David Gregory was still finalizing his staff at William Blount.
The offense the then-first-year coach wanted to run wasn’t anything like the one he was forced to put on the field.
Promoted to head coach after school had let out for the summer, after going through spring practice as the team’s newly-hired defensive coordinator, he was still getting to know his players.
It’s a lot different a year later.
“It’s been a big plus,” Gregory said. “We’ve been able to really evaluate our personnel and make some changes we needed to make. A lot of the things we did last year, we didn’t want to do them but we had to, based on a short season.”
Governor quarterback Zach Witt displayed how much all that can matter in a 7-on-7 passing scrimmage with Hardin Valley on Monday at William Blount. Witt connected on a pair of deep, touchdown passes to Hunter Saunders and Dalton Wheeler in four series with the first-team offense. A third, long scoring toss was dropped. Speedy transfers Brooks Cunningham and Wheeler latched onto several of Witt’s passes underneath.
Fall practice for high school football teams around the state opens on Monday. Most, like the Governors and Hawks, have spent the last two weeks in various passing leagues and in on-field workouts without pads. Six-time defending state champion Alcoa, Heritage and Maryville were three of 30 schools to take part in the East Tennessee 7-on-7 Perimeter Passing Day last weekend at Maryville College.
The Tornadoes, who will enter the season riding a 28-game winning streak, are set at quarterback with senior Austin Tallant returning. After a summer in the weight room and an injured hand a year ago fully healed, Tallant threw the ball with terrific zip at the Maryville College camp. He’ll have no shortage of weapons at his disposal.
There’s still a chance senior Austin Canfield and junior Patton Robinette could split time under center this season as Maryville looks to replace Philip Juhlin at quarterback. It’s worked before.
Former Rebels Derek Hunt and Brent Burnette directed Maryville to a state title sharing time there four years ago. The Rebels are awfully deep at receiver, regardless of who gets the job.
Brint Russell put Heritage’s Mountaineers in a spread offense upon arrival for his first season as coach last season. With senior Tyler Hartley returning for his second season as the starter, Russell definitely isn’t looking for a quarterback. Like Tallant, Robinette and Canfield, Hartley looked sharp at the perimeter camp.
The passing leagues and perimeter camps are revealing much with the 2010 season not far in the distance. The Maryville Orthopaedic Clinic Football Jamboree is scheduled for Aug. 13 at William Blount, with many teams opening the following week. What the summer is revealing about the Governors is how good a team few know much about could really be.
“We’ve said all along our skills people this year will be our strength,” Gregory said.
More dangerous with his feet than his arm a year ago, Witt spent much of summer working on his mechanics at D1 Sports in Knoxville. The results, evidenced by Monday’s scrimmage with Hardin Valley, are a smoother delivery, tighter spirals and a confident, senior passer, Gregory said.
“He really worked hard,” he said. “I think the biggest thing that’s helped him is he’s so much stronger than last year. He’s put on about 15 pounds, and he’s throwing the ball with a lot more velocity than last year.”
With the receivers and backs Witt will throw to this season that could really pay off, partly because few Governor opponents will know much about them.
Saunders has good size, good speed and sure hands and looks a playmaking receiver in all respects. Wheeler, a transfer from Alcoa, has genuine breakaway speed out of the backfield. Fellow Tornado transfer Cunningham is another option. Junior Greg Cook, at one of the backs, could prove the biggest revelation of all.
“He’s got an opportunity to turn some heads,” Gregory said. “One of the coaches said it best the other day: ‘He bends in places you don’t expect people to bend.’
“He’s not a burner, but, if he breaks it, you’re not going to catch him.”
The decision at quarterback could consume all of fall practice for the Rebels. Robinette, a 6-foot-5 junior, emerged the leader after spring practice, but Canfield has done anything but concede, Maryville coach George Quarles said.
“It’s definitely not a done deal or anything like that,” he said. “I would think both of them would get some time (during the season), however it comes out. Both want to be the starter, and I think we could win some games with both of them. We’ve had success doing it in the past.”
Maybe not with this many receivers, though.
Seniors Stian Romberg and Desmund Horne both had over 50 grabs a year ago, both with more than 10 touchdown catches each. Fellow senior Clarence Langley is also a threat to go the distance. As many as nine receivers, Quarles said, could see extended minutes.
“That’s got to make your quarterback feel good,” he said. “We’ve got eight or nine receivers that can play and go out there and make some catches.”
For now, the six-time defending champion Tornadoes feature only one, but he’s a dandy.
Long-striding senior Steven Isom is generating some serious buzz in recruiting circles. The 6-4 speedster is receiving interest from Tennessee, Kentucky and others of late. An offer looks likely soon to follow. However, going into the season with only one receiver to rely on isn’t an approach he’s looking to take, Alcoa coach Gary Rankin said.
At the Maryville College camp, junior LaJaun Warfield looked as if he could develop into just the deterrent the Tornadoes are looking for to prevent teams from doubling down on Isom. When it comes to the guy getting them the ball, Tallant has the arm strength, and temperament, to make it all work in a big way.
“He’s gotten bigger and stronger,” Rankin said. “He’s gotten in the weight room. He’s throwing the ball really well.”
The competitor in Tallant has spurred him on most this summer, Rankin added.
“Physically, he’s really helped himself,” he said. “He’s a warrior. He’s a battler. If you’re going to be in a foxhole, he’s the one you want to be in there with you.”
The Tornadoes needed little more than Isom as its lone, big-play receiver a year ago, in large part because of record-setting season from running back JaRon Toney. The Gatorade state player of the year and Mr. Football finalist, who plans to walk on at Tennessee this fall, rushed for a state-record 50 touchdowns in leading Alcoa to its sixth consecutive state crown.
If the Tornadoes are forced to a run-first, run-often approach again this fall, they’ll certainly have the speed and power in the backfield with which to give it a try.
Junior Vanderbilt Hambrick is faster than Toney. Sophomore Ezekial Koko is a powerful runner with a sprinter’s acceleration. Senior Darrell Warren will also see time there, Rankin said, but the super-quick, pass-rushing end may prove more valuable to Alcoa on defense.
At fullback, senior Taharin Tyson averaged nearly a first down per carry last season. The Tornado tank already has an offer from West Point on the table. Backing up Tyson is sophomore Jarod Crenshaw, whose speed rivals that of the Tornado tailbacks.