About the only things Sequatchie County and Grundy County have in common this high school football season is that they're the only teams from the Chattanooga area playing in Region 4-3A, and they both wear purple and gold.
Grundy is hoping to move upward from where it finished last season while 2016 region champion Sequatchie is looking to avoid slipping backward.
Grundy's Yellow Jackets return a somewhat veteran group in 2017, just not in the form of seniors. They have four, including running back and linebacker Drew Tate (5-foot-10, 185 pounds).
The others are Aaron Comer (6-0, 235) and Corbin Lusk (6-0, 220), who will play on the line on the offensive side, and Josh Nance (6-1, 230), who will add blocking help at tight end.
"It's good to have seniors on the offensive line," Grundy coach Casey Tate said. "They'll keep everybody in line and working hard."
The junior-heavy Yellow Jackets return eight starters to each side of the ball. Meanwhile, the Indians are looking for successors for nine starters on offense and eight on defense.
"Not only were they good players, they were a really good group to be around," Sequatchie coach Adam Caine said of the graduating class that sparked the run to a state semifinal a year ago. "They were really impactful. They impacted me as a coach.
"This year we've got to get tough together. We've got a lot of spots open. What we've got to get to is even more so of a collective effort. We've got to learn how to execute. We're hoping the kids learn how hard you have to prepare in order to win."
Grundy junior Hagen Cash (5-10, 160) is making the move from running back to quarterback and will run an option-based offense. Classmate Ethan Nunley (5-10, 170) moves from quarterback to running back, and his sophomore brother, Evan (5-11, 160), is shifting from wide receiver to running back. Another sophomore, Chase Nance, adds a speed factor.
"We've got a new offensive system with Chad Barger as our offensive coordinator," Tate said. "We're familiar with it. It's kind of a blend of his offense and what we were already doing. It's a double-wing set. We've run it some. With three running backs it just gives us an opportunity for all of our best ball carriers to be out there at the same time. With Hagen at quarterback, it gives us more weapons on offense."
If there's one position where Sequatchie is set, it's quarterback. Ethan Barker (6-2, 215) returns for his senior season, albeit with a new cast around him.
"He's a real competitive kid," Caine said. "There were several games last year where he had to take over and bail us out. I think he had over a hundred yards rushing in the second half in our playoff win over East Ridge. If he tries to do too much, I don't think that's a bad thing, really. I'd rather see him do that than to see him get cold when the lights are on."
Barker will have some talent around him at the skill positions, such as senior running back Caleb Reed (5-8, 190) and senior wide receiver Cameron Weaver (6-0, 165). The line play will be key if the Indians are to challenge for a playoff spot.
"It is kind of wide open," Caine said of the region. "People are picking Smith (County) because of what they've got returning. The rest of the teams could be about the same. I challenged our players. I asked them, 'Do we have the guts to go defend our region championship?' I told them, 'It's all up to you.'"
The Jackets missed the playoffs last year but could have finished third in the region with wins in league games they lost by one and three points.
"We expect improvement," Tate said. "We expect to be competitive in every ballgame."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter @KelleySmiddie.
Region 4-3A outlook
Team to beat: Smith County has the maturity edge over the rest of the region. Seven graduated off last year’s 5-6 team. A lot more than that will graduate from this year’s team. The offense is led by a dual-threat athlete who’ll be starting at quarterback for a third year. The key to the season is on defense, where the Owls lost some fourth-quarter leads last year.
Watch out for: Grundy County isn’t widely considered to be a region title contender, but look for the Yellow Jackets to be improved to the point of possibly challenging for a state playoff spot. Multiple freshmen on the first of consecutive 1-9 teams in 2015 and 2016 are now experienced juniors who should be bigger and better.
Best game: Given what champion Sequatchie County graduated, and that runner-up DeKalb County has moved up to Class 4A, it could be the first week of region games Sept. 1 when last year’s third-place team, Smith County, plays at fourth-place Upperman.
Dream schedule: Cannon County’s nonregion opponents this season were a combined 27-27 last year, with the Class 1A teams the Lions get Aug. 18 (Red Boiling Springs) and Sept. 8 (Moore County) each being 3-7. The Lions play another Class 1A team, Whitwell, on Thursday, Oct. 19, and although it’s a road game, they get the treat of playing in Finley Stadium.
Nightmare schedule: Sequatchie County opens at revenge-minded Class 1A semifinalist South Pittsburg (12-2 in 2016), followed by a home game against Class 2A state runner-up Marion County (13-2). The nonregion schedule also includes a Sept. 8 trip to Class 2A playoff team Meigs County (10-2). Then the Sept. 29 date with league favorite Smith County is the fourth on the road in the first six games for a team seeking confidence in a rebuilding year.
Players to watch: Eyes will be on the quarterbacks in this region, with league favorite Smith County relying heavily on 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior Carson Hackett (2,266 yards total offense, 28 TDs accounted for in 2016). Area teams Sequatchie and Grundy need Ethan Barker and Hagen Cash, respectively, to have big seasons.
Predicted order of finish: Smith County, Upperman, York Institute, Sequatchie County, Grundy County, Cannon County.