Central, Howard and everyone else hope to close gap on Anderson County

Central, Howard and everyone else hope to close gap on Anderson County

August 2nd, 2018 by Stephen Hargis in Sports - Preps

Central's Michael McGhee carries past Sullivan South's Zach Hickman on his way to the end zone during a playoff game last season.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.


Team to beat: Anderson County was far and away the class of the region last year, winning nine regular-season games by the state’s 35-point mercy rule while making a run to the Class 4A quarterfinals. Plenty of talent returns, including an all-state quarterback, to make a similar run this fall.

Watch out for: Central brings back 15 starters from last year and has enough athleticism to close the gap with 2017 region champ Anderson County.

Best game: Howard and Central appear to be up-and-coming programs, with lots of talented young players. When the Hustlin’ Tigers visit Central on Sept. 28, second place in the region and a first-round home playoff game could be on the line.

Dream schedule: Sequoyah’s first two opponents were a combined 2-18 last year, and all four of the nonregion opponents are from smaller classifications. The Chiefs end the regular season with a pair of home games.

Nightmare schedule: Central’s nonregion schedule includes a game at Red Bank, winner of the past two Region 3-3A titles, as well as home matchups with Notre Dame and Tyner, both of whom played for state championships last year. The Purple Pounders also travel to region favorite Anderson County.

Players to watch: Anderson County all-state quarterback Stanton Martin accumulated more than 4,400 total yards last year. Central quarterback Jaheim Jones and running back Michael McGhee are big, physical runners with better than average speed, and East Ridge athlete Alonzo Russell is a star on both sides of the ball.

Howard running back Marquez Williams stiff-arms East Ridge defender Jeremiah Butler during their prep football game at East Ridge High School on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in East Ridge, Tenn.

Howard running back Marquez Williams stiff-arms East Ridge...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

For the Region 2-4A football race to be more than a one-horse event this year, the six teams chasing Anderson County will need to show drastic improvement from last season.

The Mavericks flexed their muscle over the rest of the region in 2017, winning their league games by an average score of 55-7, and none of those final outcomes were by fewer than 39 points.

The Mavericks won nine of their regular-season games by the state's 35-point mercy rule on the way to reaching the quarterfinals before finally falling to eventual state champion Greeneville by four. There likely won't be much of a drop this season with the return of all-state quarterback Stanton Martin, a 6-foot, 190-pound senior who threw for 3,600 yards and ran for another 800 last year, accounting for 49 total touchdowns and becoming a finalist for state Mr. Football honors.

Based on size, speed and athleticism, Central looks like the best bet to challenge Anderson County. The Purple Pounders return 15 starters, including dual-threat quarterback Jaheim Jones (5-10, 210) and running back Michael McGhee (5-10, 195), who each possesses a good blend of power and speed, as does Donya Parker (6-0, 215). Meanwhile Rashaun Evans (5-9, 175) is pure speed as a ball carrier and on special teams.

"This team has more overall team speed than any I've coached," said Curt Jones, who returns for his second stint as Central coach after helping Notre Dame reach the Division II-AA championship game last year as defensive coordinator. "We can put a lot of weapons on the field on both sides of the ball.

"We just need one big win early to get the confidence going. I've seen it in the workouts and how willing the kids have been to make themselves and this team better. Hopefully that will translate on the field."

Jones prefers having speed over size on defense, which led him to move up some of the bigger defensive backs to play linebacker and the larger linebackers to the defensive line. Among the tweaks he has made so far was getting quarterback Jaheim Jones involved on the defensive side of the ball as well, where he should make the linebacker corps even more athletic.

Among the rest of the region, East Hamilton, Howard, Hixson and Sequoyah all will be looking to rebound after the disappointment of finishing with losing records last year, while East Ridge has to replace 18 seniors who either started or received significant playing time last year.

Howard has every defensive starter back — including end LeBrian Morris (6-2, 200) — from a unit that held three of its last five opponents to 14 or fewer points. Offensively, all but two starters are back on offense. Marquez Williams enters his third year as the Hustlin' Tigers starter at quarterback and is surrounded by physical runners Tremonte Brooks (5-8, 180) and Devontay Smith (5-11, 200).

As John Starr enters his second season as Howard's head coach, he said he has already seen a significant jump in the team's strength after a full season of workouts being overseen by former Hustlin' Tigers star and veteran NFL defensive lineman Terdell Sands.

East Ridge quarterback Alonzo Russell passes the ball during their prep football game against Howard at East Ridge High School on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in East Ridge, Tenn.

East Ridge quarterback Alonzo Russell passes the ball...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

"We feel better about our speed up front on defense than anywhere," Starr said. "We've slimmed down there and gotten in better condition, so we're more explosive coming off the ball."

After an impressive season-opening win over Signal Mountain, the wheels fell off for East Hamilton in 2017. Having nine defensive starters back should help limit the number big plays allowed, though. The Hurricanes have a three-way battle for the starting quarterback job, and regardless of who wins, there won't be much experience at that position. Sophomores Haynes Eller and Kyler Johnson and freshman Cooper Wick are all mobile athletes with good arms but will have to do a lot of on-the-job training.

East Ridge, which has the smallest enrollment in the state among Class 4A programs, graduated all five starters on the offensive line as well as three of the four starters on the defensive line. If the Pioneers can answer the questions up front, they have a solid group of athletes, including Alonzo Russell (6-2, 190), who's one of the area's top college prospects, can play any skill position and is just as versatile in the secondary.

Having 11 total starters back should help Hixson show marked improvement. Defensive linemen Devotis McCurdy (6-0, 280), Christian Turner (6-4, 275) and Malachi Wise (6-2, 220) make up a physical group.

Complicating the process of trying to get the program headed back in the right direction is the fact Hixson opens with one of the toughest three-game stretches of any area team — beginning against Marion County, at Meigs County and versus Anderson County, each of which reached at least the state quarterfinals last fall.

Contact Stephen Hargis at (423) 757-6293 or shargis@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.