The coaching staffs at both Baylor and McCallie believe they have closed the gap between themselves and midstate football powerhouse programs Brentwood Academy, Ensworth and Montgomery Bell Academy in ultra-talented Division II-AAA.
Whether that gap is narrow enough now for either of the local teams to return to a state title game likely will depend on how quickly unproven but talented underclassmen step up.
It's been six years since Baylor played in consecutive state finals, but the Red Raiders have reached the semifinals each of the past three seasons. With 11 total starters returning, including arguably the most talented secondary in the state, they seem to have the ingredients needed to contend with any opponent.
University of Tennessee commitment Brendon Harris, a 6-2, 205-pound free safety, and fellow FBS prospect Jaylon Baker (6-2, 170), who's versatile enough to play cornerback or safety, lead a defense that must find replacements for four starters in the front six. Several young players must emerge — one potentially is junior end Christian Harris (6-3, 285) — to help classmate Cooper Lewis (6-3, 210), one of the team's leading returning tacklers.
Harris has been moved to running back on offense to ensure the team's best weapon gets plenty of touches. He'll run behind a pair of all-state-caliber linemen — Colorado commitment Walker Culver (6-5, 280) and Riley Bodine (6-0, 255) — as well as tight end Mike Benning (6-2, 225), who's also a pass-catching threat. Junior Lorenzo White (6-3, 180) has the quarterback job all to himself, but Baylor's offense needs successors to three receivers who graduated.
"Brendon is a difference-maker for us, so we moved him to running back to make sure he has the ball in his hands more often," Baylor coach Phil Massey said. "He'll return kicks for us, too, so he won't be coming off the field much. I think Lorenzo has the chance to really become a leader for us after getting so much experience as a young guy last year, and I think we've got some young guys who are anxious to prove themselves."
The Red Raiders certainly will be playoff-tested, with this year's schedule becoming much tougher as the Red Raiders replaced Brainerd, Howard, Red Bank and Rhea County — public-school teams they beat by an average score of 44-3 in 2016 — with Division II playoff teams Knoxville Catholic and Notre Dame and Georgia powerhouse Marist.
Baylor does get fledgling Chattanooga Christian midway through the season in what should be the only true mismatch on this year's slate. But the Raiders end the regular season with three of the top four Division II-AAA teams in the state — visiting two-time defending state champion Brentwood Academy and hosting top rival McCallie and MBA, all of whom beat them last year.
"We will definitely learn where our weaknesses are, where we'll have to get better, with some of the teams we play early on this year," Massey added.
McCallie brings back just three offensive and five defensive starters from last year's quarterfinal team that blistered Baylor but lost to all three midstate teams by double digits.
"This is easily the youngest team I've ever had," Blue Tornado coach Ralph Potter said. "We could start as many as six sophomores. And with our schedule, that's scary."
The biggest unknowns heading into the season are in the secondary and along the offensive line, which is anchored by senior River Henry (6-3, 250). But the biggest question that will need a resolution before the season kicks off is at quarterback, where junior Kristopher Bowman (6-1, 190) and sophomore De'Angelo Hardy (5-10, 170) have bright futures but lack experience. Whoever wins that quarterback battle, the other is athletic enough to help at other offensive positions.
The Blue Tornado have a nice mix of senior talent at the skill positions, led by receiver Rico Dozier (5-10, 180), who had more than 700 receiving yards last season, and running back Xavier Brooks, who ran for more than 500. Senior wideout Hakim McMorris (6-3, 200), who ranked as the nation's top prep decathlete this spring, adds outstanding athletic ability to the position.
With so many young players dotting the roster, McCallie will need leadership from tight end Jay Gibson (6-5, 235) on offense as well as defensive end Jorden Starling (6-5, 230) and linebacker Adams Robinson (6-1, 195), the team's leading returning tackler with more than 80 stops.
Few programs could have their defensive coordinator resign and replace him with an assistant on staff who has college coaching experience. But that's exactly the luxury McCallie enjoyed by having Rick Whitt agree to take over the defense this season. Provided the young linemen step up, and one of the two talented QBs takes control of that position, the potential is there for McCallie to advance even further than last year's quarterfinal run.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Division II-AAA outlook
Team to beat: It won’t be easy to knock off two-time defending state champion Brentwood Academy, but Ensworth, led by the backfield of quarterback Jaylon King and running back Nicky Clifton, as well as tight end Tanner Antonutti, looks poised to reclaim the top spot.
Watch out for: Baylor has enough young talent mixed with returning starters to be a very dangerous team. Moving Brendon Harris to running back should make the Red Raiders offense tougher to stop, especially behind a line led by Colorado commitment Walker Culver.
Best game: Among area games there are few that can compare to the Baylor/McCallie rivalry. This year the Red Raiders host the Blue Tornado on Oct. 13.
Dream schedule: There’s really no such thing as an easy schedule in this league, but Pope John Paul II has the closest thing possible. Among the Knights’ nonregion games are matchups with two public schools that had losing records last season (3A Whites Creek, 3-7, and 5A Hillwod, 4-7), as well as smaller Division II-AA foes Goodpasture and Lipscomb Academy. PJP also hosts Brentwood Academy and Baylor in region play.
Nightmare schedule: Arguably the best team in the state will get the toughest test as Ensworth faces a gauntlet. There are no easy weeks with a slate that includes nonregion games against two-time defending Class 2A state champion Trezevant, as well as 3A semifinalist CPA, Division II-A runner-up Webb and 4A playoff team Lipscomb Academy. The Tigers’ league games include road games at two-time defending state champion Brentwood Academy and seven-time state champ MBA as well as having to play at McCallie.
Players to watch: There is plenty of talent between the local D-II AAA teams, beginning with Baylor RB/DB Brendon Harris (6-2, 205), a game-changer on both sides of the ball and secondary mate Jaylon Baker (6-0, 170), who’s versatile enough to play either corner or safety. Linebacker Cooper Lewis (6-3, 210) appears ready for a breakout season. Walker Culver (6-5, 280) and Riley Bodine (6-0, 255) lead the Red Raiders offensive line, along with tight end Mike Benning (6-2, 225), who’s also a pass catching weapon for junior QB Lorenzo White (6-3, 180). McCallie tight end Jay Gibson (6-5, 235) and defensive end Jorden Starling (6-5, 230) are two of the area’s top college prospects and receiver Rico Dozier (5-10, 180) had more than 700 receiving yards last year. Blue Tornado linebacker Adams Robinson (6-1, 195), the team’s leading returning tackler, leads a young defense.
Predicted order of finish: Brentwood Academy, Ensworth, MBA, Baylor, McCallie, Father Ryan, Pope John Paul II.