Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of prep football region previews involving area teams. Up next is Division II-A and DII-AA.
Without a region loss since 2000, the Maryville High School football program remains a national power capable of winning a state championship year in and year out.
For the past four seasons, the Rebels have won every league game they've played by at least three scores, and they're a clear-cut favorite this season to win the Region 2-6A title again after doing so the past two years. Maryville brings back its top playmakers on offense, including running back Tee Hodge, who has committed to Tennessee, and the Rebels have an experienced linebacker corps to lead on the other side of the ball.
Facing an opponent that boasts a roster loaded with countless college prospects might not seem like fun for most, but it's something Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd looks forward to every year.
"You play the game to go against the best teams and do everything you can to try and beat them," Floyd said. "Lots of high school players in this area dream to play in the SEC, so I don't know why anyone would not want to go up against Maryville. Everybody is shooting at Maryville, but we don't fear them by any means."
Bradley Central has had an all-state selection at quarterback the past four years: Cole Copeland in 2015 and '16 before he went on to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Dylan Standifer — who last fall signed to play baseball for Lee University — in '17 and '18.
Eight starters return in the Bears' spread offense, but they'll count on a new leader as Javin Burke, a junior who transferred from McCallie, takes over behind center. Over the past four years, Bradley Central's starting quarterback has averaged 2,561 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions per season and rushed an average of 104 times for 420 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"Our offense really sets up well for the quarterback to be a dual threat," Floyd said. "As long as Javin makes the right decisions and trusts his teammates, he will be set up for success. He has the ability to make really athletic plays when he needs to. Our high expectations of our quarterback are not changing."
Burke will have an experienced line to work behind along with Ricky McCleary, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, and dynamic targets in Saylor Clark and Tray Curry.
Curry is ranked among the top 150 recruits for the signing class of 2021 and is the No. 2 athlete in Tennessee, according to 247Sports.com. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound receiver already has offers from seven Southeastern Conference schools: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
"Tray can open up more windows for other receivers," Floyd said. "Everyone knows where he is on the field, and he's getting better and better at just 15 years old. We are not going to try and force feed it to anyone, but we will be smart about trying to get the ball to Saylor and Tray as much as we can."
With nine defensive starters to replace, the Bears have questions regarding a unit that will need to play well to make a deep playoff run.
Ooltewah has lost the star duo of Sincere Quinn and Kyrell Sanford, but the Owls can look to a deep and talented offensive line to lead the way along with quarterback Lane Moore, a senior but a first-year starter. The Owls won nine games last season and will have a tough schedule as they face seven teams that made the playoffs last year, including four that won region championships.
McMinn County brings back a 1,000-yard running back in junior Jalen Hunt and an all-region selection at linebacker in Jalen Sharp, who will try to be a bulldozer sometimes at running back as well.
Cleveland returns college prospect Robert Flowers at receiver, but the Blue Raiders have a significant lack of experience at quarterback. Flowers, a 6-foot-4 playmaker, was unstoppable for secondaries last season, when he averaged more than 90 yards and more than a touchdown per game.
Maryville did not have a lead against McMinn County or Cleveland at the end of the first quarter last season, but the Rebels could not be held down for the long haul.
William Blount and Maryville Heritage round out the region.
REGION 2-6A OUTLOOK
Team to beat: With 13 state championships since 1998, the Maryville Rebels are a perennial power. Running back Tee Hodge, who has committed to Tennessee, is a leading force for the program that has not lost a region game since falling to Halls in 2000.
Watch out for: Bradley Central has a new mobile threat at quarterback to pair with talented running back Ricky McCleary, who had 12 touchdowns and 1,191 yards as a junior. The Bears also return standout receivers Saylor Clark and Tray Curry, who combined for 16 touchdowns and nearly 1,600 yards in 2018. If the offensive line can lead the way, the Bears could have a big season.
Best game: Drama hasn’t lacked in the past two meetings between Bradley Central and Ooltewah. The Bears won 42-35 at Ooltewah in 2017, and the Owls landed payback with a 28-27 home victory last year. A Sept. 20 matchup between a pair of teams expected to battle for the second spot in the region should provide lots of entertainment.
Dream schedule: Ooltewah will host Red Bank, McMinn County, Bradley Central, Rhea County and Maryville, and the Owls should be fired up to try to defend their turf and win some big games. But they have tough road games against 2018 region champions David Crockett in the Aug. 23 opener and Soddy-Daisy on Sept. 27.
Nightmare schedule: Cleveland opens the season at Knoxville Central — the reigning Class 5A champion — and then the Blue Raiders face challenging home games against Hardin Valley and Maryville before traveling to Soddy-Daisy. A showdown with rival Bradley Central on Oct. 4 is the Cleveland’s first of four straight road games.
Players to watch: Bradley Central no longer has two-time all-state quarterback Dylan Standifer, who was a senior last season, but Javin Burke has the speed and playmakers to have a big year. Curry is being heavily recruited by Southeastern Conference teams, and a breakout campaign could push him and the team to another level. Ooltewah’s offensive line abounds with college talent, led by major prospect Christian Benoit, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound senior. The Owls will look to senior quarterback Lane Moore to help right the ship, while Chase Sanders, Josh Shelvin and Tanner Rhodes are expected to lead the secondary, linebackers and defensive line, respectively. McMinn County returns 1,000-yard back Jalen Hunt, while offensive lineman Garrett Priest and linebacker Jalen Sharp are other key players. Cleveland will look to talented receiver Robert Flowers to follow up a 900-yard, double-digit-touchdown season, and Blue Raiders linebacker Money Palelei showed extreme flash as a freshman last year and is quick to strike. Maryville returns a stellar quarterback in Cade Chambers along with top-tier playmakers in receivers A.J. Davis and Ashton Maples, while Hodge’s strength and speed out of the backfield are exceptional. Rebels senior linebacker Mason Shelton is a strong leader for a defense that abounds with sophomore talent.