SOUTH PITTSBURG PIRATES
Coach: Vic Grider (149-33 here and overall)
Returning starters (O/D/K): 6/8/2
Remember these names: The most likely playmakers will be running back Demetric Johnson (Jr., 6-1, 180) and receiver Antonio Chubb (Sr., 5-11, 175), each of whom also is a defensive back and a kick returner. Each averaged nearly 20 yards per touch last season. The offensive line is led by three-year starting center Cody Branham (Sr., 6-1, 300) and transfer tackle D.J. Roberson (Sr., 6-5, 315) as well as Coltin Blevins (Sr., 5-10, 220), an offensive guard and linebacker who was the defensive MVP of the state-title game last year.
Will be a memorable year if: Junior quarterback Jake Stone stays healthy — the backup options are shaky — and Johnson lives up to the hype and fills the rushing void left by the graduated Raquis Hale. If both of those things happen, the Pirates should make another deep playoff run.
Aug. 26 Grundy County
Sept. 2 Lookout Valley*
Sept. 9 Sequatchie County
Sept. 16 at Marion County*
Sept. 23 at Signal Mountain
Sept. 30 Whitwell*
Oct. 7 Franklin County
Oct. 14 at Boyd-Buchanan
Oct. 21 Polk County
Oct. 28 at Knoxville Grace
* District 6-A game
When Cody Branham steps to the line of scrimmage, whether he looks to his left or right, he won’t see many familiar faces from last year’s starting lineup. If he checks the backfield before he snaps the football, there won’t be a returning starter there, either.
South Pittsburg’s senior center is the only returning starter on the line and will be snapping to his third starting quarterback in as many years. The Pirates also will break in two new running backs, but all those fresh faces won’t change the expectations on the state-champion program.
“I’ve been around here long enough to know we’re still supposed to win a lot of games,” said Branham, who helped the team average 8.9 yards per rushing attempt last year. “As the only returning starter, it makes you push yourself more to set an example for the younger guys.
“I’ve always been the quiet type. I don’t like to yell; I leave that to the coaches. I’m more of the type to go to somebody and try to help coach them if they made a mistake or encourage them. I’m not sure how much more of that I will have to do this year.”
The 6-foot-1, 300 pound Branham will be joined by transfer tackle D.J. Roberson (6-5, 315) in solidifying a line that averages 291 pounds. Coltin Blevins, one of 14 seniors and an all-state middle linebacker, has some starting experience on the line as well.
Branham was born with 40 percent hearing loss in his left ear and 60 percent loss in his right. He learned to read lips as a child and began wearing a hearing aid in kindergarten. Because the Pirates use hand signals rather than an audible snap cadence, his hearing impairment has not hindered him as a center.
“You actually forget that he has trouble hearing because he’s so good at what he does,” Pirates coach Vic Grider said. “You have to be very intelligent and be pretty quick and strong to play center, and he meets all those requirements. We had already planned to go to the spread and not use a cadence before he came, but that just all worked out for both sides.
“This year more than ever, we need him to be that take-charge guy in the huddle and be in control of the younger guys. You don’t have to be a rah-rah guy to be a leader, and he understands that. The other guys follow him just because they see how good he is at what he does.”
South Pittsburg is the only school that has played for a state championship in all six decades of the playoff format. The Pirates’ proud tradition began in 1969, the first year the TSSAA introduced a playoff bracket to determine its champions. That season, led by all-state running back Jimmy Wigfall, the Pirates rallied to defeat rival Marion County in the last regular-season game to qualify for the playoffs, then advanced to the title game, where they defeated TPA at Overton High. The Pirates had only one set of uniforms back then — the all-black jerseys and pants — but as the designated visiting team they had to borrow white jerseys from Overton.
“Most of our fans didn’t even know which team we were when they first got there because we weren’t wearing our colors,” Wigfall said. “That was a pretty big deal for all of us and our whole town, and it started something that is still a big source of pride for our community.”
South Pittsburg also won state titles in 1994, ’99, 2007 and ’10 and was runner-up in 1974, ’85, ’86 and 2009.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...