What began as a challenge from a co-worker has become one of the most anticipated days of sports coverage for assistant sports editor Stephen Hargis every year.
For the 13th consecutive year, on the first day that high school football teams in Tennessee are allowed to practice in full pads, he traveled to as many area schools as he could fit into a single day.
While prep teams in Georgia must practice in shorts for two days before putting on full pads Wednesday, this year he was able to include two area teams from the Peach State as well.
Beginning at Walker Valley and working his way back into Chattanooga and Northwest Georgia before crossing into the Central time zone to finish in Marion County, he made 24 stops in all, covering 368 miles.
Optimism and the sound of pads crashing filled the day at each school. And with the season kicking off for most teams in just three weeks, there are very few days to make preparations for what could be a memorable season for several area teams that believe this fall can end with a state championship.
With the start of the high school football season just three weeks away, teams in Tennessee began practicing in pads Monday. Teams in Georgia must have two days of practice in shorts and helmets to acclimate to the heat before putting on full pads Wednesday.
All times Eastern.
7:17 a.m., Walker Valley -- Glen Ryan's first job as the Mustangs' new head coach might be his toughest. Having been the team's offensive coordinator the last two years, Ryan said this week's practices will be designed to develop toughness.
"We've got to change the mentality and the bad habits they've had," said Ryan, referring to the program's 3-27 record the last three seasons. "We're going to open their eyes with some pretty tough practices and see if we can teach them to overcome being tired and keep fighting through that. Some of the guys have hit a mental wall and dropped their heads when they got hit hard or had tough breaks in the past. We've got to overcome that way of thinking."
7:49, Bradley Central -- With three of the first four games against bruising, run-oriented offenses, the Bears will begin practice with a lot of defensive drills designed to stop the run. Bears coach Damon Floyd noted that his team had been in several 7-on-7 passing league games and he felt good about their pass defense, but he wants to spend this week testing the grit of his front seven, which include all three linebackers returning.
8:35, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe -- There shouldn't be a shortage of playmakers for new offensive coordinator Houston White. The former Hixson head coach has two capable quarterbacks in senior Trey Silman and junior Sky Rogers battling for the starting job in his up-tempo, no-huddle set.
Whoever wins that job will be surrounded by help from 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior tight end Dylan Flowers, running back Pooh Harden, who was timed at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash last week, and senior Jackson Wallin, who will play several positions.
"We can go from a five-wide track-meet style to lining up in a power set and running right at people," White said. "We don't have the depth we'd like, but we can cause people some problems on offense."
9:03, Ridgeland -- Although it was picture day and the team was going to have only a short conditioning period afterward, there is always news involving free safety Vonn Bell. Rated one of the nation's top prospects by numerous recruiting services, Bell has eliminated Clemson from the list of schools he is considering, trimming his list to Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Tennessee, Texas and Vanderbilt. Bell is calling each of those programs with a list of three questions to be answered by their coaches as he tries to decide where he will commit before the season begins.
Panthers coach Mark Mariakis is eager to see how four transfers fit in when practice begins later this week. Among the new players who could make immediate impacts on an already solid team is Shaqualm McCoy, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards last year for Notre Dame.
9:29, Chattanooga Christian -- The Chargers have challenged for a playoff berth each of the last two years only to fall short. The roster has grown to 55 players, 11 more than last year, and most of those are sophomores and freshmen, so the program looks to be headed in the right direction.
"The main thing is our kids have experience now," Chargers coach Barry Loyal said. "They aren't star-struck on Friday nights anymore. We're at the point where we feel like we should compete with about every team we play. We should be in the playoff hunt."
9:57, McCallie -- No one is safe from an aggravated Ralph Potter, not even me. In his return to coach at his alma mater, Potter knows there is work to do to rebuild the program to the level it was when he left five years ago. As we watched one play unfold, Potter, who is meticulous about every detail of the game, takes a break from informing his defensive unit, "I keep telling you guys to go until you hear the whistle. Don't stop!" to make sure I'm clear not to print an earlier comment. Like the players on the receiving end of his direction, I clearly get the point.
What's also clear is that there is plenty of coaching experience on Potter's staff, including two former head coaches (Rick Whitt and Tawambi Settles), two other assistants who are head coaches in other sports and Efrin Stewart, who joined the staff after more than 20 years of coaching at Tyner.
10:16, Notre Dame -- The team is "camping" at the school all week. Players do not leave campus, waking at 6:30 a.m. to lift, then have breakfast before taking the field for a morning practice, afternoon special teams work and an evening practice.
"I like the UnderArmour commercial that says, 'We must protect this house,'" first-year Fighting Irish coach Charles Fant said. "My philosophy is it's not your house until you've lived in it, so we're staying in the locker room and on campus and we will protect our home turf when teams come here."
Fant admitted he was disappointed to lose McCoy but said the rest of the team is rallying around the defection and he has scheduled a scrimmage against Polk County with one goal in mind.
"We want to become a very tough team, and in my opinion, Coach [Derrick] Davis' teams are always about the toughest in the area," Fant said. "They will beat on you and make you be tougher. We hope to not get anybody hurt, but we can learn toughness by playing those guys."
10:39, Baylor -- Now that the passing league games are finished and teams will begin scrimmaging, new Red Raiders quarterback Michael O'Conner, who transferred from Canada and already has several scholarship offers from BCS programs, will be tested against live competition. The 6-foot-5 junior has been impressive during 7-on-7 scrimmages.
As practice was winding down, the defensive linemen and linebackers working on one drill had to finish by sprinting 30 yards to an assistant coach who was yelling to each one, "Finish strong!"
Summer vacation is officially over for the Red Raiders, who hope to play in the Division II state final for a third straight year.
11:00, Red Bank -- The entire drive around campus is a construction zone and the Lions were on their new practice field, which is on a hill above the old field. E.K. Slaughter, who was once the Lions' offensive coordinator and returns as the head coach, jokingly described for a trainer what his goal is for one lineman who reported out of shape.
"If he doesn't lose about 10 pounds a day, you aren't doing your job," Slaughter said.
Slaughter concluded practice by challenging a couple of defensive linemen's toughness in front of the team, then called out the entire defensive unit.
"We can have a dang good defense, but what happened out there today ain't it," Slaughter said.
11:27, Signal Mountain -- Of all the stops I made Monday, no team was more impressive than the Eagles. During an intense series with starters on both sides, the offense physically took it to the defense, led by running backs Diamenz Franklin (6-1, 190) and Robert Turner. The tempo of the scrimmage slowed only long enough for the teams to move to the opposite side of the field from where a defensive lineman threw up while still in his stance.
There is enough depth that only one player -- receiver/defensive back Chris Abernathy -- likely will start on both sides of the ball. Even in the spots where the Eagles are inexperienced, there is enough talent that by the midway point of the season, the team should be rolling.
"We actually look like a 4A team for the first time," Eagles coach Bill Price said. "This is the most depth I've had as a coach anywhere. Ever."
12:24, Soddy-Daisy -- The lights in the weight room were out and bodies were lying all over as the Trojans rested following the morning practice.
Coach Kevin Orr sat in his office alone going over the plan for the afternoon session.
"We're about to crank up the intensity," Orr said. "We went through the basics this morning, but we're going to throw away the tackling dummies and see who the men are. We're going to get after each other now."
Soddy-Daisy returns just three starters and will be switching from a three-man defensive front to a 4-4 (four linemen, four linebackers) to better fit the personnel.
12:57, Hixson -- LIke several of the other coaches taking over a new program, Jason Fitzgerald admitted the mental hurdle will determine what type of season the Wildcats have. Hixson hasn't had a winning season in six years.
"We need to win a game we're not supposed to early on to build the confidence here," said Fitzgerald, who had sustained success at Rhea County before coming to Hixson in the spring. "There's a thought that they can't beat certain teams on the schedule because they haven't in a long time. The talent is there; we just have to get them to believe they can make it happen. Getting them to push through when they're tired and bruised will be a good first step."
1:42, Central -- The Purple Pounders won't practice for several more hours, so the coaching staff is busy painting the outside of the pressbox. The concrete steps in the bleachers already have been painted and a new scoreboard is in place as the entire stadium gets a face-lift.
Central's team has also undergone a renovation after coach John Allen booted four senior starters recently for conduct detrimental to the team. Since taking over the program last year, Allen has kicked off 14 players. Senior quarterback Dominique Dawson, who played in four games last season, will take over for one of those dismissed starters. Allen also is excited about sophomore outside linebackers Brian Billingsley and Kevin McKenzie.
2:36, Brainerd -- The numbers battle continues for the Panthers, who finished last season with just 21 players but made the 4A playoffs. With 28 at the morning practice, coach Stanley Jackson said he likely won't push a lot of contact on the players for fear of injury.
"We can't afford to lose anybody," Jackson said. "We had 13 seniors on a team of 21 players last year, so the simple math is we only have eight kids back from last year that got any experience. We've got work to do."
4:14, Tyner -- The tour doesn't really begin every year until I step onto the Rams' worn practice field and hear Wayne Turner's voice booming over his players. The team was broken into three groups and Turner was overseeing the linebackers and defensive linemen. When seniors Ahmad Johnson and Joseph Sturkey collided, there was a noticeably louder impact. Johnson had written a message on the side of his practice pants that read, "Blessed, not lucky."
4:49, East Hamilton -- The difference from three years ago, when the Hurricanes were just beginning, is impressive. From a fledgling program to one that earned a playoff berth last year and will be a district favorite this season, Ted Gatewood again is doing a solid job building a program. Gatewood took Ooltewah to that program's first playoff appearance and has East Hamilton's roster numbers up to nearly 90, proving the program will be ready to move up in classification, which likely will happen next season.
"Our kids are a lot more mature in every way, especially the way they're approaching the season," Gatewood said. "They know they had a great opportunity last year in the playoffs and they learned a tough lesson about how once you get in, every week is one and done.
"That's been the driving force during the offseason. The kids want to go deep into the playoffs now."
5:21, Ooltewah -- With only five total starters back from last season, the message will be clear for the Owls.
"We've got open jobs everywhere," coach Shannon Williams said. "The economy may be bad everywhere, but we're hiring here on the field."
While there is little experience at the skill positions, there is plenty of athletic ability, led by senior receiver Andrew Ware (6-3, 185), a basketball player who is just now giving football a shot.
"He's a pretty athlete to watch," Williams said. "He can flat go get it, but we have to see how he handles contact. He'll be a good target for [junior quarterback] Brody Binder (6-2, 205). I think those two kids could be special for us."
5:40, Silverdle Baptist -- As senior lineman Aubrey Shamblin tried on different sized helmets, coach Al Rogers shook his head.
"That last one comes off too easy, and that makes me nervous," Rogers told Shamblin. "It especially makes me nervous since your mom is my sister."
After getting his nephew set, Rogers began making his way toward the field to join the rest of the team. The Seahawks lost just four starters from last year's team, so a run to the playoffs could be in order.
6:05, Grace Academy -- After working on special teams in the morning, and conditioning, the Eagles were eager to start hitting.
"I think the kids are tired of running and lifting and they're ready to get after each other," coach Bob Ateca said.
The Golden Eagles could challenge defending District 5-A champ Boyd-Buchanan because of the return of seven starters to both sides of the ball, including four of five linemen and the entire offensive backfield.
6:24, Boyd-Buchanan -- The Buccaneers enter the season as solid contenders for the 2A state title. Twelve of the 17 seniors will fill starting spots for a team that lost by one point in the quarterfinals last year.
"The neat thing is watching all the older kids becoming like coaches on the field," Bucs coach Grant Reynolds said. "You can see them pulling the younger guys aside and teaching them.
"We went to camp for two days last week and didn't allow any cell phones, which worked out great because the kids had to actually talk to each other."
The morning practice was two hours of defensive work and the evening was spent working on offense, where Jim Cardwell, who threw for more than 1,700 yards, returns for his third year as the quarterback starter.
6:47, Howard -- Hustlin' Tigers coach Michael Calloway made no bones about it.
"I've got to find some linemen," Calloway said. "We've got skill guys but no depth on the line. I need some big boys."
With a lack of depth, and inexperience at several positions, Calloway said the staff will try to train the young kids' bodies to adjust to not taking any plays off.
"They have to be able to go six or seven straight plays without coming out to rest," Calloway said. "They need to be in good shape by the time the season rolls around."
7:12, Lookout Valley -- With eight starters back on both sides, there is plenty of excitement for the Yellow Jackets.
Eighth-grade quarterback Evan Walker looks sharp throwing the ball and will need to be ready for the season opener, which senior starter Vann Scribner must sit out against Midway after he was ejected from the Yellow Jackets' playoff loss last season. He will have plenty of help from three-year starting tailback Jamal Jones (5-11, 190), who rushed for more than 1,400 yards last year and recently was timed at 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
7:46, Marion County -- New Warriors coach Mac McCurry was working with the team's three quarterback candidates and instructed Matt Zeman, who has the most experience of the trio, to get rid of the ball more quickly.
"I'm not against you -- I want you to get better and do it right," McCurry said. He has had success in previous coaching stops at Marshall County and Moore County and was Signal Mountain's defensive coordinator last year before being hired to turn things around at Marion.
8:11, South Pittsburg -- Although much of the hype surrounding the Pirates involves the return of running backs Jajuan Lankford and Demetric Johnson, who combined for nearly 3,500 rushing yards last season, the end of the second session of the day focused on the defensive side of the ball. Despite having a defensive back make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage during a first-team defensive unit drill, coach Vic Grider bles the whistle and angrily instructed the entire defense to do five "up-downs."
"We will run our [butt] to the ball or we will do these all day!" Grider yelled. "We will make people earn every yard."
On the next two plays, a group of at least five black jerseys gang-tackled the runner at or behind the line.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
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 ...