Friday, Nov. 29
• South Pittsburg (11-1) at Coalfield (9-3)
• Cleveland (10-3) at Knoxville West (12-1)
• Central of Carrollton (10-2) at Ringgold (10-2)
• Calhoun (11-1) at Benedictine (12-0)
The road for South Pittsburg’s fifth trip to the Class 1A state football championship game in the last seven seasons is blocked by a mountainous obstacle.
When the top-ranked Pirates (11-1) visit sixth-ranked Coalfield (9-3) Friday in the semifinal round of the TSSAA playoffs, they will face 1A’s biggest, most talented group of linemen. The Yellow Jackets’ starters on the offensive line average 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, led by junior Zach Stewart (6-5, 305), a University of Tennessee commitment, and senior Benson Napier (6-3, 310), who is being recruited by Middle Tennessee State, UT-Chattanooga and VMI, among others.
“They’re gigantic,” South Pittsburg coach Tim Moore said. “It’s rare that you have one guy with that type size at the 1A level, much less several of them. They’ve been blessed with some great linemen, and the major concern is that they’re not just big and physical but they can move really well, too.
“Stewart looks like he’s ready to step in and play at Tennessee right away, and the other kid (Napier) looks just about as good on film. They’ll line up and come downhill right at us, and it’s our job to find a way to move them.”
The Yellow Jackets have overcome the early-season loss of starting center Jacob Jones as well as all-state running back Addison Bible, who ran for more than 2,000 yards last year but hasn’t played since week two following shoulder surgery. Despite those losses, Coalfield relied on its mammoth offensive line to pave the way for sophomore Andrew Clore to rush for 1,400-plus yards.
Adding to the Pirates’ difficulty is that Stewart and Napier are two-way starters and have been just as productive on the defensive side. Stewart has 60 tackles, 13 for lost yardage and nine sacks, while Napier has 62 tackles, six for loss and four sacks.
“Zach and Benson are both really tough to move out of there,” Coalfield coach Keith Henry said. “We don’t get fancy on offense. We just line up and come at people behind that big ol’ line, and they’ve done their job all season.”
Henry added that Stewart is still being recruited by Georgia, Florida, Florida State, Miami and Notre Dame among others, but that it’s been his childhood dream to play for UT.
“Zach is just a very dominant player. I also think Benson is going to be a big-time steal for somebody because he’s got a motor that’s nonstop. I’ve coached a long time and those two kids have the type talent that’s few and far between. We had to overcome some early injuries, but I believe we’re peaking at the right time.”
South Pittsburg has just one lineman who weighs more than 245 pounds: senior tackle Ricky Fehr (6-1, 265). The Pirates will counter Coalfield’s size with a speed advantage, led by Mr. Football finalist Jajuan Lankford, who has more than 5,000 career rushing yards; fullback Kahlil Mitchell, who has run for more than 1,200 this season; and running back Corbin Fitzgerald, who ran for a career-high 142 yards last week.
South Pittsburg has won its last four trips to the semifinals, not having lost in that round since 2001, while Coalfield is trying to get over the hump, having lost in each of its three previous semifinals.
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 ...