MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- In team meetings and in practice, Nic Bullard is known as a buzzard, which might not sit so well with his mother.
"I usually just call it strong safety when talking with most people," the diminutive Baylor School senior said with a laugh Monday.
At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Bullard is one of the smaller defensive players on the field, but he has been adept in big games at coming up with choice leftovers.
In last year's state championship game he had a team-high eight tackles. Against Christian Brothers in a Division II state semifinal on Nov. 21 he intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown in the Red Raiders' 31-28 win.
"I usually look back at [the 2010 state championship game] as the best game I have played personally, but from a pass-defense perspective the Christian Brothers game was my best," he said.
There are two buzzards -- i.e., strong safeties -- in Baylor's 3-3 stack defense. The other one, Russell Burton, allows Bullard to avoid the smallest player label.
"He's about 5-6, 165, but with us it isn't so much size but learning the scheme. You have to know what's going on," Bullard said.
Ensworth on road
Ensworth, Baylor's opponent Thursday night at 8 EST in the Division II-AA championship game, is practicing on the road this week because the Nashville school does not have artificial turf.
The Tigers practiced indoors at Tennessee State on Monday and also had talked with Montgomery Bell Academy, Pope John Paul II and Vanderbilt about using their facilities.
Baylor has artificial turf.
"There are [artificial turf] fields we can use, but what you run into is all the lacrosse teams practicing," Ensworth assistant coach Paul Wade said. "And we've found over the years that even artificial surfaces are different."
Ensworth-Baylor is the only repeat matchup from the 2010 championship series.
Vanderbilt will be well represented in the Division II-AA championship game with Baylor linemen Barrett Gouger and Ensworth receiver and defensive back Cory Batey. Both have committed to play for the Commodores.
Batey is Ensworth's leading receiver with 40 receptions for 756 yards and nine touchdowns.
"I feel like [Vanderbilt] had a successful season compared to years past, and I think Coach [James] Franklin has created a lot of excitement over there," the 6-1, 185-pound Batey said. "I'm 100 percent committed. I feel like Vanderbilt has a very bright future."
Keith to call Baylor
All eight TSSAA finals Thursday through Saturday will be shown live on the state's public television channels, including WTCI in Chattanooga, and Tennessee Titans radio "voice" Mike Keith will do play-by-play for both Division II games Thursday: St. George's vs. University School of Jackson (4:30 EST) and Baylor vs. Ensworth.
"It's another way to help us promote football in Tennessee, and to be honest, I enjoy the heck out of doing it," Keith said. "This is the Super Bowl for these teams, so I've been preparing for the last two weeks so I would know the teams.
"These kids will have a lot of great moments later in life, but this will always be one of the biggest thrills for them, and I don't want to let any of them down."
Failure stirs Quarles
Maryville coach George Quarles, leading his team to a state-title game for the 11th time in 12 seasons, said it isn't so much the adrenaline rush that inspires him each year.
"I'm a huge fear-of-failure kind of guy, so the big motivation for me is worrying about what could go wrong," said Quarles, whose teams have claimed eight state titles. "You never know when it will be your last time to make it, so I want to take advantage every time."
Half of the 12 teams playing for TSSAA Division I state championships are making their first finals appearances: Wayne County in Class 1A, Dresden in 2A, Christian Academy of Knoxville in 3A, both Powell and Henry County in 5A and Whitehaven in 6A.
Five teams are seeking to finish undefeated seasons with titles, as Wayne County is 13-0 and Henry County, Powell, Maryville and Whitehaven each is 14-0.
Ten of Monday's Mr. Football awards finalists have committed to FBS programs, but only one -- Knoxville West kicker George Bullock -- has pledged to sign with the University of Tennessee. Three finalists -- Baylor offensive lineman Barrett Gouger, Henry County offensive lineman Andrew Jelks and Memphis East running back Brian Kimbrow -- have committed to Vanderbilt.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...
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 ...