Some talented freshmen played key roles on area high school football teams last season. So should more be expected from them now that they're experienced sophomores?
"I can read my blocks better," said Calvin Davenport III, who was instrumental as a ball carrier, among other things, as a Brainerd ninth-grader in 2011. "I think I'm a better leader, too."
Some coaches will find out if the investments they made in select freshmen a year ago will start paying some short-term dividends as soon as Friday when the 2012 TSSAA season begins. A total of 17 games involving area teams will take place that night, and Cleveland plays Saturday against Maryville in the Motor Mile Kickoff Classic at Alcoa at 5 p.m.
Coaches say the main reasons for starting a ninth-grader on varsity are because he's either the player best suited for a particular position or it's out of necessity. South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider said injuries forced the Pirates' decision to start playing Corbin Fitzgerald at cornerback last year. But he learned so well on the job, the coaches felt like they couldn't take him out of the lineup.
"There's no doubt in my mind he's further along because of it," Grider said. "This year we're going to have to play a lot more players in his class, and he'll be able to help them out with what to expect.
"It's almost like he's a junior in the sophomore class. He's ahead of the learning curve."
Fitzgerald also quarterbacked the second half against Signal Mountain last season after starter Jake Stone, a senior this year, left the game with a concussion. Stone, who also plays safety and had a good view of Fitzgerald's work at corner last year, is learning a new offense with less shotgun formation, and his understudy is learning with him.
"I have full faith in him," Stone said. "He's a smart player, which is a thing you've got to have at quarterback. He's got his head on straight. I'd like to see him next year. I see special things happening for him."
Although Davenport is recovering from an ankle sprain he suffered in AAU basketball about a month ago and is questionable for Friday night's 7:30 home game against Ooltewah, Brainerd coach Stanley Jackson said he would be more likely to play at cornerback than running back. A pulled groin caused Davenport to miss a game and a half last season, but classmate Kaylen Stewart started every game last season at the other corner.
Davenport said he and Stewart have known each other since first grade and regularly go over game preparations together. Jackson envisions a day when he can trust them to handle single coverage so the safeties can add run support. If they continue to progress, that could come sooner rather than later.
"The thing about these kids is they were just coming out of middle school," Jackson said. "By week 10, they looked like juniors."
Notre Dame, which hosts Grace Academy on Friday at 7:30 p.m., got a lot out of Kareem Orr's all-purpose talents last year, along with classmate Keeley Green's relentless efforts from linebacker. And if the recent city jamboree is any indication, the Fighting Irish project to have even more veteran sophomore players next season.
"We had three freshmen out there. That's me. In my experiences as an offensive coordinator, I've always played at least three younger players," said Notre Dame first-year head coach Charles Fant, whose previous 13 years in coaching were as an assistant. "That's the only way to build depth. They may not start, but they will have significant playing time."
Signal Mountain's Harrison Moon and Bledsoe County's Nathaniel Collins are now sophomores. Both had modest statistics in 2011, but both are in the 6-foot-5 range and potentially scary.
Moon had noticeable offseason performances at prospect camps at Oklahoma and Arkansas. And he's not yet a licensed driver.
"I don't necessarily believe in the hierarchy of seniority," Jackson said. "If we have a kid that's a No. 1 recruit by the colleges, if he goes there ready to play, he'll play. They don't look at it that way. Why should we?
"If we have a senior and play him just because he's a senior, only parents care about all that. All everybody else cares about is, 'Did we win or did we lose?'"
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.