Brainerd's football team may be stocked with young talent, but its first-year head coach will be counting on a player who has been around as the Panthers try to regain their footing in Region 3-3A.
Jeremy Ferguson returns at quarterback, and Martels Carter is glad to have him - even if it's just for one more season.
"We are going to lean on Ferg. He is a great senior leader," said Carter, who took over the program in late March after working as Brainerd's defensive coordinator last season under Stanley Jackson.
"Last spring, he helped direct our baseball program to some big victories. He has a strong arm, is quick and has improved a lot from last season. He is a guy who can really push us on the field."
Ferguson, though, will be counting on his younger teammates, including left tackle Jarvis Strickland Jr. - a 6-foot-6 freshman who is a solid 280 pounds, Carter said. Strickland already has offers from Southeastern Conference programs Kentucky and Ole Miss.
"He is Mr. Blindside," Carter said. "He is our best offensive lineman as a ninth grader. He knows what he wants to do. This is his calling. He actually calls out the seniors if they are slacking. He's the guy. He will have some little growing pains because he isn't as weight-room strong as he needs to be, but he will have every school in the nation after him in no time."
Just two years ago, the Panthers went 8-5 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs in Tyrus Ward's fourth and final season as head coach. They went 2-8 last season, when they were outscored 224-172.
Tight end Donivon Thomas is also back, and the 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior, an all-state basketball selection, can pick up big yards over the middle or go outside to snatch touchdown catches over the heads of defensive backs. While the graduation of star playmakers Talijah Witt (now at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) and Jaylyn Dupree (Cumberland University) will be felt on offense and defense, the addition of sophomore Martels Carter Jr. - he is the coach's son - should make a big difference.
After transferring to Brainerd in the second semester last school year, Carter was the second leg of the Panthers' 4x100-meter relay state championship team. He is ranked eighth in the nation in his age group in the 100-meter dash and recently made a trip to AAU nationals.
A ball hawk at safety, he also has the potential to star at receiver and running back and play in special packages at quarterback, too. He is already one of the top college prospects for the 2025 recruiting cycle and has offers from Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Memphis, Michigan, Michigan State and Ole Miss among others.
Defensive back should be a position of strength, with sophomore Jayun Smith and junior Derrion Calloway also breakout candidates for the Panthers, whose 14 interceptions led Region 3-3A a year ago.
Carter was a starter in the secondary last season for Georgia's Rome, which won the GHSA Region 5-AAAAAA title. Now he'll try to help the Panthers return to relevance in 3-3A, where 2021 state quarterfinalist Loudon is the reigning champion.
"I had all the kids list their goals, and Martels didn't have a numeric goal for yards or touchdowns," Coach Carter said. "He said he wanted to help this team be successful and help them earn respect.
"So often no one has respected Brainerd. These kids want to bring that pride that they have in the basketball gym out to the football field. We are very young but loaded with talent. We will be a scary program if they keep buying in and pushing themselves."
The region also includes Signal Mountain, which started 3-0 last season before going 6-5 and returns all its starters from both the secondary and the defensive line, where Luke Alexander and Malik Aljack are key players. Also back is middle linebacker Rip Hutcherson, the Eagles' second-leading tackler in 2021.
"Those three guys really hold down our defense and are all seniors," said Josh Roberts, who is entering his sixth season as head coach. "When we are playing well on defense, it's usually because they are playing really well. We return eight starters defensively and are excited about what they can do."
Signal Mountain also returns Pete Sesterhenn and Chance Townson, who had a combined six takeaways last season.
On offense, Blake Wolfard is a go-to target for sophomore Cash Keene, who started four games at quarterback last season, and senior offensive lineman Daniel Odom (6-4, 250) will be counted on for more than big blocks.
"Daniel is our left tackle, and he is the anchor of our team," Roberts said. "He is always doing the right thing and checking on guys. He is a great leader and just a really consistent guy."
McMinn Central, with 19 returning starters, ranks as the region's most veteran-laden team. The Chargers are hungry for their first winning season since 2014, when they set a program record with 10 victories. Last season they went 2-8, but their losses to Signal Mountain, Sweetwater and Tellico Plains were by a combined nine points.
"Our guys are experienced and really are a whole lot tougher going into this season," second-year coach Matt Moody said. "(Left tackle) Isaiah Trew is one of those kids who has made huge improvements in the weight room. This team is full of hard workers, and they are ready to have a strong season."
Region 4-3A outlook
In a league dominated by 12-win Giles County last season, two local programs will try to bounce back this year.
Sequatchie County, 4-7 in 2021, has a stout offensive line led by Avery Headrick and Brandon Presto along with dual-threat quarterback Payton Campbell, a senior who has all-state potential. The Indians will rely on Brayden Johnson and Braylon Long to make big plays through the air.
At Grundy County, 2-7 in 2021, versatile junior Kyler Hopkins is a breakout candidate. Kyler Cantrell, who last season had single-game highs of 133 rushing yards (Clay County) and 125 receiving yards (Tyner), is another key player.