As tough as it is to believe, we have less than a month before another high school football season kicks off. So for the 18th straight year I tried Monday to visit as many area teams as I could on the first day that Tennessee allowed them to practice in full pads.
With my college senior son Riley riding shotgun, we managed to see 21 teams during a 13-plus-hour tour. Because their practice time conflicted with several other schools in the opposite direction, I wasn't able to see Soddy-Daisy in person, but I did speak with Trojans coach Justin Barnes, who filled me in on what they'll be working on this week.
"We've got seven starters back on both sides, so the biggest position battle will be between junior Gavin Chambers and freshman Isaac Barnes at quarterback," Barnes said. "We had nine guys that missed significant playing time because of injuries (last season), so we're hoping to stay healthy. The good thing that came from that is that we have a lot of younger players who got game experience and are back now."
Trojans senior running back and linebacker Ty Boeck (6-foot-1, 210) is coming off a hairline fracture he suffered during the wrestling season but is considered one of the city's top college prospects.
Elsewhere in the area, much has changed since last season — five new head coaches at stops along the way and local private schools Boyd-Buchanan, Chattanooga Christian, Grace Academy and Notre Dame all having moved to compete in Division II this year.
All times Eastern.
8:13 a.m., SIGNAL MOUNTAIN: The first thing I notice is that numbers have nearly doubled under first-year head coach Josh Roberts. After struggling to win just three games the past two seasons combined, and ending last year with 28 players, the Eagles now have 53, which will go a long way toward making them competitive again in Class 4A.
8:30, BAYLOR: Special-teams players are the first to begin trickling onto the game field. Senior Brendon Harris, a University of Tennessee commitment, will add running back and special-teams returner to his defensive back duties, and senior lineman Walker Culver has committed to Colorado. Junior defensive lineman Christian Harris (6-3, 235) has added more than 30 pounds since last season and is expected to become the Red Raiders' next big-time prospect.
9:19, HIXSON: First-year head coach Gary Murray, who has been on the staff since 2012 as an assistant, has the Wildcats working on special teams.
"We were up 14 on Soddy-Daisy last year at halftime, and after they returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown, they wound up coming back on us," Murray says. "We're working to make sure we get better there first thing."
The Wildcats graduated all six starters along the offensive line and will rely on Jack Julian (6-2, 215) to take over at quarterback. Julian, a baseball star, hasn't played football since seventh grade but has the athletic ability to become a difference maker.
9:51, CENTRAL: Players look absolutely miserable as they slowly climb the hill from the practice field to the locker room. Coach Cortney Braswell quickly explains why.
"They didn't have the right attitude to start practice, so we just lined them up and ran them for almost a solid hour," Braswell says. "I didn't yell or lose my cool. I just smiled and told them to line up and get ready to run because I was going to get effort out of them however I could."
The Purple Pounders return 15 total starters, including junior Mike McGhee, who led them in rushing and receiving, from a team that won three of its last five games last season.
10:23, TYNER: The drum corps can be heard practicing behind the school, but as I get closer to the practice field the loudest sound becomes the popping pads as the Rams are in a full-blown intrasquad scrimmage.
Veteran coach Wayne Turner goes from calmly calling plays to a booming voice as one young player is caught loafing. Tracey Justice (6-2, 285) will anchor the line and Jaylen Bowens (6-1, 175) will be a key ballcarrier.
10:54, EAST HAMILTON: As defensive coordinator Steve Garland has a group of linebackers working on wrapping up on tackles, he instructs one to come back and redo the drill.
"I didn't hear a pop," Garland says. "I need a louder pop when you're wrapping up!"
The Hurricanes return running backs Jhaden Smith and Adam Caudle as well as two-way lineman David Bohn (6-3, 250), but sophomore cornerback Sam Randolph (6-1, 170) looks like he has all the tools to become the next big-time prospect.
11:37, BOYD-BUCHANAN: The Buccaneers are off the field and head coach Carter Cardwell is already looking ahead to today's practice schedule. Nothing is left to chance.
"We even practiced taking a knee in our victory formation today," Cardwell says. "We go over every possible situation so all our guys are confident in what they're suppose to do. That paid off last year when we needed to rush out for a field goal in the final seconds against Tyner. Since we had practiced it, our guys knew what to do when we yelled for a hot field goal, and we got the winning kick off with less than 10 seconds to go."
The Bucs have three young quarterbacks — sophomores Eli Evans and Griffin Broome and freshman Eli Morris — battling for the starting job.
11:58, BRAINERD: The Panthers won't hit the field until later in the afternoon, but coach Tyrus Ward already is in meetings at the school. Ward has returned to his alma mater with a plan to turn things around, and it starts with attitude.
"It's all about finding guys who are committed to the program and to doing things the right way," Ward says. "It's a little surreal being back, because this is my dream job. It's where I've wanted to be, and it's an awesome feeling to work at a program that I care so much about.
"I've already noticed a change in how this group of kids approaches everything from practice to getting ready for school. Whenever they slip, we've got what we call Panther reminders (bear crawls and extra conditioning) to bring them back."
12:40 p.m., EAST RIDGE: As the Pioneers look to replace all-state running back Traneil Moore, they likely will use committee approach. That will include senior Lorenzo Stewart (6-1, 225) and junior Nico Johnikin. Four starters return to the offensive line, but six new starters must be found to replace starters lost on the defensive line and in the secondary.
Coach Tim James is helping usher in a program he calls "Pioneering men" to help players handle off-the-field instruction. He also has ordered blue blazers and orange and white ties for the team to wear to school on game days.
"I want our guys to know how to carry themselves outside the game and in real life situations," James says.
1:20, NOTRE DAME: The Irish could be one of the most fun teams in the area to watch this season. There's talent at nearly every position and they are making the switch to the air-raid offense, similar to what Washington State coach Mike Leach runs.
There's an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, beginning with sophomore quarterback Landon Allen (6-3, 185), who's back from a broken leg that stopped what was becoming a special season last year. He'll have plenty of weapons around him, including receiver Cameron Wynn, a 5-10, 175-pound junior who's already committed to Tennessee and has been timed at 4.4 in the 40-yard dash. Akil Sledge (6-1, 205) is making the transition from running back to receiver, while junior Tarik Nelson (6-0, 175) and sophomore Jeffrey Watkins will handle much of the ball carrying duties.
"Tarik is as good a Division I prospect as I've had, and that's saying something considering the talent we've had here recently," Irish coach Charles Fant says. "He's just so smooth with his cuts and his speed. He's special."
3:04, RED BANK: The team is broken up into groups, with skill-position players lifting weights and the linemen sitting in pre-practice meetings. Junior Calvin Jackson will be making the transition from dual-threat quarterback to receiver and possibly even play some at running back.
"We've got to find ways to get the ball in his hands a lot," offensive coordinator Drew Akins says. "He's a big play waiting to happen."
The Lions defense should also be stout with the return of senior lineman Jamel Davis (6-3, 245) and Ivan Young (6-2, 195), as well as inside linebacker Kedrick Richardson (6-0, 240).
"We had success last year, so the kids understand the expectations are higher and that the target will be on us more," Akins adds.
3:41, OOLTEWAH: There are 29 seniors, but one of the biggest reasons for optimism as the Owls move up to 6A is the return of junior running back Sincere Quinn (6-0, 180), who gained 1,200 yards in 2016 despite averaging just 12 touches per game.
There also are five seniors anchoring the offensive line, three of whom were starters last year, including all-state tackle Zaire Bruner (6-3, 285). Kyrell Sanford (5-11, 190) will be the first junior to start at quarterback for the Owls since Mac Bryan took over as coach.
"His accuracy has really improved since the spring, and the thing that he gives us is the ability to win games with his feet, too," Bryan says. "When he tucks the ball to run it, he's got running back skills."
4:18, SILVERDALE BAPTIST: The Seahawks will be the smallest school in the state competing in Division II-AA, just 14 students over the limit of being D-II A. Among the nine seniors, quarterback Colin Lovell (6-0, 175) is emerging as a leader, and there are eight defensive starters back.
4:43, GRACE ACADEMY: Among the seven starters back on offense for the Golden Eagles will be junior Cade Tinsley (6-0, 185), who's moving from tailback to quarterback after rushing for more than 1,200 yards last year and averaging 9.8 yards per carry. Grace has 22 players on the roster and will have to travel to the midstate for four games against Division II-A opponents.
5:23, McCALLIE: Veteran Rick Whitt, who has previous head coaching experience as well as experience as a college assistant, is the new defensive coordinator. That will mean continuity for that unit since Whitt has been on staff.
Considering the amount of youth that will be counted on, the Blue Tornado could earn the nickname Baby Blue.
"This is easily the youngest team I've ever had," head coach Ralph Potter says. "We could start as many as six sophomores. And with our schedule, that's scary."
Tight end Jay Gibson (6-5, 235) and defensive lineman Jorden Starling (6-5, 230) are among the few returners with starting experience, along with receiver Rico Dozier (5-10, 175). Whoever doesn't win the quarterback competition between junior Chris Bowman (6-1, 195) and sophomore DeAngelo Hardy (5-10, 175) will get action at other positions.
"They're both too talented not to be on the field somewhere," Potter says.
6:04, CHATTANOOGA CHRISTIAN: The Chargers practiced in the morning but second-year head coach Mark Mariakis is still working on plans for what to work on the rest of the week. Similar to McCallie, the Chargers will be very young, including two 14-year-olds who could earn starting positions on defense. Senior Dylan Clark has never played quarterback at the varsity level but is making the move from outside linebacker and will compete with freshman Sam Hall for the job. Whoever takes snaps will get used to handing the ball off to junior fullback Mondo Ellison (6-1, 215) a lot.
"We've got experience on the line, but our skill guys will be really young," Mariakis says. "And we're making the biggest transition you can imagine by going to D-II against teams that have been giving financial aid for years and are already established in that league."
6:21, HOWARD: As soon as coach John Starr arrives on the practice field, his mood changes. Starr is upset after watching players slowly walk onto the field just moments after he told them to hustle.
"All right, y'all already ruined my mood!" Starr shouts. "Everybody on the line. Since you can't listen and can't hustle, we'll run for a while and do some extra conditioning. I'm going to get your attention, even if it takes all day."
An assistant blows the whistle and the entire team begins to sprint 100 yards, then turn around and sprint back.
"We've got so many talented juniors. If they'll just listen we could be really good," Starr says as he watches his team begin their second set of sprints.
Junior Marquez Williams will take over at quarterback after playing receiver last year, and classmate TaJuan Billups will be counted on to set the tone at tailback and middle linebacker.
6:44, LOOKOUT VALLEY: First-year head coach Lance Rorex, who is also the school's baseball coach, is excited about the numbers and the potential.
The Yellow Jackets have 28 on the roster, including sophomore fullback Blake Buchanan and junior wingback T.J. Fuller, a pair of co-op players from Richard Hardy School who got their first varsity action last year and now will be primary ball carriers. Riley Phillips is an all-district shortstop who never has played varsity football but likely will earn the starting quarterback job.
7:22, WHITWELL: The Tigers are ending their two-hour practice by running up a large hill on one side of the practice field. With 20 of 22 starters back, including all-state running back and linebacker Hudson Petty as well as backfield mates Trace Condra and Josh Wingo, first-year coach Randall Boldin is optimistic about the expectations.
"We had to battle some overconfidence last spring because the kids started to believe how good people in the community were telling them they were," Boldin says.
7:47, MARION COUNTY: It's obvious just how much football means at each of the last two stops of the tour. As Marion is going through a few passing drills, there are dozens of youth league players of various ages on the adjoining fields and parents huddle at one end to keep a close eye on the varsity.
Marion, which has played in state finals each of the past three seasons, returns running back Jacob Saylors as well as quarterback Isaah Sampson and receiver Kane Hale. Also back, and expected to become a difference maker, is senior athlete Nick Caps.
"Our focus right now is on the offensive and defensive lines," Warriors coach Joey Mathis says. "We know what those skill guys are capable of. We've got some experience up front, but we lost a lot of talent up there and we need to work on some depth to get to where we want to be."
8:17, SOUTH PITTSBURG: More than 20 cars line the practice field as Pirates fans are clearly eager to see what the team will look like after a run to the semifinals last year.
As usual there is talent at the skill positions, led by all-state receiver Cade Kennemore, fullback Garrett Raulston (6-2, 230) and running back/linebacker Sawyer Kelley. But the biggest reason for coach Vic Grider's smile is the offensive and defensive lines.
"There's no question this is as deep as we've ever been up front," Grider says. "We can go two-deep on both sides of the line, and with quality depth, which is something not many 1A teams can do."
The biggest question is which of two young quarterbacks — sophomore Jaylyn Hubbard or freshman Brayden Sanders — will earn the starting job.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.