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The Pirate offensive line awaits the play, from left Mitch Butner (62), Hayden Branham (67), Corbin Cawood (50), Drew Daniels (55), and Franklin Russell (70). The South Pittsburg Pirates visited the Whitwell Tigers in TSSAA football action on October 7, 2016

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — What had been a lingering question coming into the 2016 football season has become an emphatic team strength. Although South Pittsburg reached the playoff quarterfinals last year, the Pirates were bullied up front by stronger teams, leading to lopsided defeats to Marion County, Boyd-Buchanan and a season-ending loss to Columbia Academy.

A year later, and with just one new starter on the offensive line, that group has helped South Pittsburg return to the physical style the program was built on.

Heading into tonight's Class 1A semifinal home game against unbeaten and third-ranked Greenback, the Pirates are averaging 8.6 yards per carry and have more than 4,700 yards of total offense. Winners of 12 straight games after a season-opening loss to 3A's second-ranked Sequatchie County, the Pirates are outscoring teams in their classification an average of 54-9.

"The first thing I noticed when I came back was how significantly behind we were, strength-wise, from where good football teams are," said Vic Grider, who returned as coach last year after a two-year hiatus. "We couldn't stand toe-to-toe with the better teams, and the kids recognized they were overmatched against stronger teams and took it on themselves to working to change that.

"The biggest thing really was how the kids bought in to what (defensive coordinator) Shawn Peek was selling in conditioning and the weight room. He's relentless in how he works the kids to get stronger. We've got a group that can be pretty nasty now."

South Pittsburg has a rotation of eight or nine who can play on either side of the line, led by left guard Drew Daniels (5-foot-11, 210), center Corbin Cawood (6-1, 215) and right tackle Mitch Butner (5-11, 225), a Mr. Football semifinalist. Along with those three seniors, helping pave the way for an offense that has punted just once so far in the 2016 playoffs are junior right guard Hayden Branham (5-10, 180) and sophomore left tackle Cooper Stewart (6-2, 240), as well as junior Franklin Russell (5-11, 190), who can rotate at either tackle position, and junior tight ends Mason Fuqua (5-11, 180) and E.J. Cagle (6-1, 180).

"As a play-caller, one of the best things about that group is that I don't even think about which side we need to run to," Grider added. "I have confidence running to either side, no matter what the down and distance is. We tell those guys that with the speed we have in the backfield, we don't need long. Just give us a couple of seconds and our backs will be gone.

"We've got a saying about how hard we work in the weight room and at practice: 'They don't live like we do.' The kids take a lot of pride in that and believe they outwork everybody else and want to go out every game and prove it."

The proving ground for South Pittsburg's line came in a week three game against 2A's top-ranked Marion County. The Pirates averaged better than 5 yards a carry in rushing for nearly 200 yards in an upset win that instilled the confidence that they once again could compete with anybody.

The Pirates have scored 50-plus points in eight of their last 10 games.

"That Jasper (Marion) game is when we realized that no matter who you put in front of us, we'll step up to the challenge. It let us know that South Pittsburg football was back," Daniels said. "Even if we're not the biggest on the field, we'll still hit you. We take a lot of pride in that and love showing people what we're about.

"If we come out with a big play on offense, I always look to see how the other team fires off the ball the next time we're out there. When they quit firing off the ball, that tells us we're getting to them and they don't want any more. That just makes us go harder."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

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