• Consecutive years touring the area: 14
• Stops: 16
• Teams that believe this will be a better season than last year: 16
• Coaches who broke into salty-language tirades during the visit: 9
• Miles traveled: 293
• States visited: 2
Because Tennessee high school football teams were allowed to begin practicing in helmets and shoulder pads last week to acclimate to the heat, not as many area teams opted for two-a-day practices this year. That made visiting as many schools as usual for full-pads opening day more difficult, and other annual stops, like at Boyd-Buchanan, weren't possible because the Buccaneers left Sunday evening for weeklong camp at Fort Bluff near Dayton.
But with the weather cooperating more than normal, here are the highlights from the first day of practice in pads for area teams:
• 6:59 a.m., Sale Creek: This will be the Panthers' inaugural varsity season, and for a first-year 1A program, numbers are good with 30 players. Most already are on the field stretching before practice begins, but what catches coach Ron Cox's eye are the several who are just arriving and trying to trot unnoticed toward the field.
"You're late! You'll pay for that!" Cox yells.
Since spring practice wrapped up a couple of months ago, Sale Creek has had 11 players choose not to remain with the team, including seven rising seniors, leaving the team with just five seniors. Some of the juniors haven't played football since eighth grade, according to Cox. But the first-year team will play its four home games at Finley Stadium and another game against Monterey at Tennessee Tech, giving them five games in college stadiums.
Adversity strikes early in this year's tour as the high grass, still wet with dew, has made my socks wet. Is there anything worse than walking around in wet socks? Quickly I realize good buddies such as Signal Mountain coach Bill Price and Tyner's Wayne Turner would never tolerate such wimpy excuses to derail practice, or the tour, and I'm able to overcome this hurdle and press on.
• 8:03, Chattanooga Christian: The middle school team is practicing on an adjoining field and the future looks good for the Chargers with around 35 players working out. The varsity is in three groups, with tackling drills at one area, blocking drills at another and receivers and quarterbacks playing pitch and catch. Assistants stand at each station, shooting video with iPads for later review.
As one young defender tries to wrap up a much larger ball carrier, one assistant encourages him by saying, "I know it's like trying to tackle a refrigerator, but you have to wrap him up!"
• 8:26, Ridgeland: Teams in Georgia must practice for five days in shorts and helmets before they can put on full pads. Varsity players met in the weight room to lift from 7:30 to 8:15 and just now are running onto the field to begin warming up for the two-hour practice.
The physical running style of the wing-T, and plenty of horses to run it right, helped the Panthers reach the state championship game last season. Many of those players are no longer here, but there is no shortage of athletic looking younger ones waiting to step up.
"Everything we've done up till now has been centered around passing leagues and throwing the ball," Panthers coach Mark Mariakis says. "Now we can finally get back to actual football, or the way we play it, and get to working on finding out who wants to be physical and block and carry the ball for us."
• 9:12, Baylor: The Red Raiders are working on an inside drill, and the coaches already aren't happy with the way the line is blocking. Head coach Phil Massey stands in as a tight end on one play to show how he wants that position to block down on the edge, and two plays later line coach Tim Daniels shakes his head in disgust when the defense blows up a play as soon as the runner gets the ball from the quarterback.
"Why are there two defensive guys in my backfield?" Daniels barks as he looks at the linemen walking back to the huddle. "That's our bread-and-butter play. We have to be able to block that!"
One noticeable difference here are the extra thick pads that fit snugly over players' helmets, giving them extra cushion to avoid potential concussions. The pads are new and will be worn only during practices.
• 9:44, Signal Mountain: Barely more than a half hour into practice, the Eagles already are in full-scale scrimmage mode. Play is stopped momentarily while the defense does several up-downs for not pursuing to the ball to the liking of assistant Troy Boeck. As play resumes, one thing becomes clear: Signal Mountain can match any team in the area in size.
That includes 275-pound fullback James McClellan and 6-foot-6, 365-pound defensive lineman Marcus Hardy. Junior lineman Harrison Moon, who at 6-6, 255 will be one of the area's top prospects next season, sheds a block and plants freshman running back Skye Wilson on his backside. On the next snap, with Moon out, Wilson turns the corner, lowers his head and punishes two defenders on a nice gain, redeeming himself.
The scrimmage continues when Coach Price orders the ball to be placed at the 10-yard line, giving the offense four plays to try to score against the first-team defense. Price, who calls the offensive plays, jokingly taunts the defenders by yelling, "We're going run it down your throat right here!"
That incites the defensive players, who begin hitting runners with a lot more force than before and stop the offense at the 2-yard line on fourth down to prevent the score.
• 10:23, Red Bank: After a two-hour "midnight madness" practice, followed by a snack, players and coaches slept for a few hours in the gym before returning for their second practice. Coaches note that players are noticeably less enthusiastic than they were for the first session.
"We're dragging quite a bit now," Lions coach E.K. Slaughter says. "We probably got to bed around 4, so I know I am."
Slaughter is known for his fondness of the passing game, but this year, personnel dictates the switch to the triple option. When asked about it, Slaughter looks as if he may break out in hives.
"Yeah, now when it's third-and-3 we'll have to actually run the ball," he says. "I hate it, but we just don't have what we need to be able to throw the ball around a lot right now."
• 10:58, Notre Dame: The first practice of the day is just wrapping up, and weary-looking players are making their way from the field to the locker room, where they'll shower, eat lunch and rest before team meetings and repeating the process.
Second-year head coach Charles Fant is busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest. He instructs two assistants on how to upload video of practice onto his computer and is interrupted by another assistant with a question, followed by a player with another question and back-to-back calls to his cell phone, all within a two-minute span.
The biggest difference here since last year are the expectations. Not much was expected from the Fighting Irish, or their first-year coach, last fall, but goals are set much higher after a nine-win 2012 season.
"Ninety-four percent of our offense came from our freshmen and sophomores last year, so that means pretty much our entire offense is back this year," Fant says. "There's just a much different attitude now. The kids got a taste of what it feels like to win, and they're willing to work harder to keep that."
• 11:16, McCallie: The first of two practices just ended and coaches are decompressing in their meeting room, going over the highs and lows of what they just watched.
"We've got so many young guys, and in pretty much every position we're just teaching our base stuff right now," Blue Tornado coach Ralph Potter says. "We'll have a lot of sophomore starters this year, so we're just getting them the basic knowledge to build from.
"But we will have pretty good team speed."
Included among the burners who will be on the field this fall for McCallie is senior C.J. Fritz, who won the Division II state title in the 100-meter dash in May.
• 2:56 p.m., Walker Valley: The second practice of the day, an hour-plus special teams workout, has just ended and the entire team is in the weight room. "Alice in Chains" is blaring at near rock-concert decibels, making the only other recognizable sound that of metal weights clanging against the floor.
The Mustangs, who have just nine seniors, are basically beginning from scratch on offense with no starters returning to the line or the backfield. Receiver Colton Morrow is the only starter back on that side of the ball, while the defense must replace the entire secondary, two of three linemen and two linebackers.
"We'll probably have four or five freshmen that will start this year," Mustangs coach Glen Ryan says. "Our freshman class is as talented as we've ever had here, but they're still freshmen and that's scary."
• 3:35, Cleveland: Coach Ron Crawford reminds me of Russell Crowe's character of a mad genius in the movie "A Beautiful Mind" as he stands at a dry erase board, drawing various scenarios so quickly that his three safeties barely have time to nod they understand before he moves on to the next.
Unlike their county rivals at Walker Valley, the Blue Raiders return plenty of experience with eight starters back on each side of the ball. Quarterback Austin Herink is among the returners who will be counted on, and the 6-foot-2 senior has lost 12 pounds, down to 208, which should help his mobility.
"He can make all the throws," Crawford said of Herink, who has received scholarship offers from Youngstown State and VMI and is being recruited also by Furman, Duke, Memphis, Western Kentucky, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee State. "I think he's got D-I (FBS) talent."
• 4:09, Bradley Central: Bears coaches barely had time to grouse over the graduation of four-year starting quarterback Bryce Copeland before former Soddy-Daisy starter Brett Standifer transferred in. The 6-2, 210-pound senior is talented enough that two other players who were in contention for the quarterback job have moved to other positions.
"He's better than I thought he would be," head coach Damon Floyd said. "I haven't seen many weaknesses yet. He was coached well before he ever got here, because he already knows how to read coverages and where to go with the ball. I'm not sure what we did right to deserve getting a player with his talent, but we're awfully glad he's here."
The Bears do have to replace three offensive linemen but have at least three talented receivers for Standifer to throw to, including a pair of 6-3 targets in Dee Crisp, a senior who was the District 5-AAA receiver of the year in 2012, and junior Daniel Clark, who had played quarterback.
• 5:07, East Hamilton: The Hurricanes have been on the field since 2:15 and the coaching staff's patience is officially over with what they believe is lackluster effort.
Defensive coordinator Steve Garland blows one play dead and lights into the entire unit.
"Why aren't you hitting?" Garland yells. "Nobody blew a whistle. The play was still going and all of you guys just jog over and don't hit anybody! You're all arm tackling and I'm sick of it! Are you playing hard every play?"
Watching from a distance, head coach Ted Gatewood smiles and says, "It helps having guys like Steve coaching. I don't have to be the one who's always yelling when they need it."
• 5:36, Brainerd: The new staff has the Panthers divided into three working groups, and the two noticeable similarities are a quick pace for each drill and continual positive reinforcement.
Panthers assistant Tyrus Ward, who looks like he's still in playing shape, works with a group of tacklers and reminds them after each rep to continue practicing hard and not slow down.
• 5:59, Tyner: In the second least shocking moment of the day, Rams coach Wayne Turner is chewing out a young lineman for missing a blocking assignment. While "Coach T" continues whipping the line into shape, former Rams quarterback and longtime assistant Jackie Buttram walks over to ask how other area teams are looking today. Buttram has grown a beard that would rival anything by the stars of "Duck Dynasty," or at the very least Turner.
"Coach T told me I couldn't help out this year if I didn't grow a beard like his," Buttram jokes. "We're a young team this year, but we're going to surprise some folks. We've got really good speed in the backfield; we just have to get our linemen where they need to be."
• 6:31, Hixson: The Wildcats left spring practice in need of a kicker, but Luke White, a home-school student who hasn't played football but has a strong leg, has joined the team. As Hixson coach Jason Fitzgerald explains how his new kicker arrived, White is drilling 30-yard field goals with 10-15 yards to spare.
"He could really help us this year," Fitzgerald says. "The biggest difference from my first year here last season is attitude. The kids have a different mentality, and they better. We're going into this season as the hunted, and those kind of expectations mean you better have your mind on your business every week."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 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 nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...
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