Marion County has won 11 straight Region 3-2A games — by an average of 37 points — and two of the last three league championships. But according to region coaches the Warriors are not the pick to win this year's title. Instead it's Tyner, with 13 total starters returning and an impressive blend of size and speed, that is the favorite.
"Our defensive front and secondary have the potential to play extremely well," veteran Rams coach Wayne Turner said. "We're strong up front and we've got some guys who come downhill hard from the secondary.
"We've got a lot of seniors who are going to play a lot, and I feel real good about our skill-position guys. We just need to stay focused on improving every day, but this is as good as I've felt about a team here in several years."
Among the 23 seniors who will get significant playing time, two-way tackle Tracey Justice (6-foot-2, 280 pounds) has the ability to control his area along the line of scrimmage. There's no shortage of big-play threats carrying the ball behind him on offense, beginning with quarterback Jaylen Bowens (6-1, 180) and running backs Ke'un Webb (5-11, 170), Jeremy Elston (5-10, 165) and Rah'le High (5-10, 160). Bowens also has speedsters Jeremiah Batiste (6-0, 175) and Martavius Ryals (6-0, 170) to throw to. Each of those backs also plays in the Rams secondary.
"We've got good depth everywhere except maybe on the offensive line right now," Turner said, "so if we can just avoid all the injuries we had last year, I believe we can be pretty tough."
Despite having just four starters back on both sides of the ball, Marion County has the potential to reclaim the region title, provided some young linemen step up. No team in the area can match the amount of big-game experience Marion's seniors have. Over the past three seasons the Warriors have played a combined 45 games, including 15 in the playoffs, as they've reached three straight 2A state-title games.
They can match skill-position talent with anyone in the league, beginning with all-state running back Jacob Saylors (5-10, 190). He'll be rejoined in the backfield by junior quarterback Isaiah Sampson (6-1, 180), who threw for more than 1,100 yards last season. Senior athlete Nick Capps (5-10, 171) and receiver Kane Hale (6-3, 200), along with sophomore athlete Brett Nelson give the Warriors plenty of offensive threats, while senior fullback/linebacker Seth McClain (5-8, 190) is solid on both sides of the ball. McClain is one of the team's leading returning tacklers and had 11 more for loss last season.
"We need several guys to have breakout seasons for us, especially up front," Warriors second-year head coach Joey Mathis said. "We have limited game experience in some key spots and not as much depth as we'd like. But we have been in a lot of big games so our guys know the type effort it takes to be successful."
Dennis Therrell, who has coached at the collegiate level, now heads the program at Bledsoe County, his alma mater. Senior Kevin Whitson will take over at quarterback, adding to his linebacker chores, and sophomore Colby Rogers is expected to have playing time at both running back and receiver. Senior kicker/punter Gabe Boring is a weapon on both sides of the ball and is one of the most highly recruited special-teams players in the area.
The past three years have been a struggle for Polk County, but with improved numbers on the roster and 10 seniors slated to either start or play a lot, the Wildcats could register their first winning season since 2013.
"We took some lumps having to play a bunch of freshman and sophomores for a while, but now we've got better depth (60-plus on the roster) and we think we can get back to the point where people don't like seeing us line up against them again," Wildcats coach Derrick Davis said.
Three veteran players moved from skill positions to the Polk offensive line, including Wyatt Martin (6-1, 215), who played quarterback the last half of his freshman season. He moved to fullback and tight end the past two seasons and is now the starting right tackle.
"We're relying on those unselfish type kids to get us back to being competitive," Davis added.
Tellico Plains returns 20 players with starting experience, and with at least 10 seniors getting significant playing time, the Bears could challenge for a playoff spot.
Meigs County has moved from 3-2A and will compete in 2-2A this season against teams outside the area — Cumberland Gap, Oneida, Rockwood and Wartburg. The Tigers are picked to win that region by league coaches.
"I would think there are three teams that could win it: Oneida, Rockwood or us," Meigs coach Jason Fitzgerald said. "Both of those games (Oneida and Rockwood) are on the road for us."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.
Region 3-2A outlook
Team to beat: With 13 total starters back and a good blend of size and speed, Tyner appears poised to knock Marion County off the region champion’s perch.
Watch out for: After three straight runs to the state-title game, Marion County has plenty of firepower to not only win the region but make yet another trip to Cookeville.
Best game: The region title likely will be decided when Tyner travels to Jasper to take on Marion County on Sept. 15.
Dream schedule: Four nonregion opponents on the Tellico Plains schedule had losing records last season, and two are Class 1A teams.
Nightmare schedule: Marion County’s nonregion slate includes Class 5A power Rhea County and two of 1A’s top contenders, Coalfield and South Pittsburg. The Warriors also must travel to Sequatchie County, which reached the 3A semifinals in 2016.
Players to watch: Possibly the most dynamic player in the region is Marion RB/DB Jacob Saylors (5-10, 190), while teammates Kane Hale (6-3, 200) and Nick Capps (5-10, 171) are capable of turning out big plays on any snap and FB/LB Seth McClain (5-8, 190) is a tone setter on defense and solid short-yardage ball carrier. Tyner two-way tackle Tracey Justice (6-2, 280) is the region’s top lineman and will be counted on to clear the path for athletic QB Jaylen Bowens (6-1, 180) and runners Ke’un Webb (5-11, 170) and Jeremy Elston (5-10, 165).
Predicted order of finish: Tyner, Marion County, Bledsoe County, Polk County, Tellico Plains.
Coming Thursday: Region 3-3A