East Hamilton knows it must get over the hump.
The Hurricanes were close to winning 10 football games last season, but they fell to Sullivan South, Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy — all at home — by a combined 13 points. They also lost 29-14 to eventual region champion Anderson County after trailing by one at halftime.
In seven wins last season, East Hamilton looked the part of a championship contender by outscoring its competition a combined 332-54, finishing 5-1 in Region 2-4A.
"We go into every year thinking we can win a region championship," said Grant Reynolds, who is entering his second season leading the Hurricanes. "We have to instill a mindset with these guys to know that they can win the close games. We were in all of our games last year. Mentally, we just didn't get over the hump. So that's what we are preaching to the kids this year: to be tough and finish ballgames."
While the tough-to-tackle Adam Caudle is now at the University of the Cumberlands after scoring 22 touchdowns and compiling more than 1,500 yards last season, the Hurricanes return senior quarterback Haynes Eller.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Eller caught fire down the stretch last season, throwing for 1,100 yards and 14 of his 23 touchdowns over the final six games. In that time, he also showcased a budding chemistry with Kaunyae Burgans (6-3, 210), who had 400 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2019 and is expected to take a big step forward as a junior.
"Kaunyae needed that experience last year as a sophomore," Reynolds said of the emerging star, who caught a 35-yard touchdown in a 28-24 first-round playoff loss to Sullivan South. "He has a lot more confidence now and has really been working hard this offseason along with the rest of our guys. I think he is going to be a guy who can step up and make big plays for us."
Eller will be glad to see familiar numbers in front of him as four of the team's five starting offensive lineman are back: center Gavin Galloway (6-2, 245) along with Callaway Covington (6-4, 225), Brandon Williams (6-1, 320) and Luke Bohn (6-0, 250).
While the backfield has questions waiting to be answered, Jeremiah Flemmons did have a 100-yard rushing game last season and is in the mix of those still competing for a starting job.
"Whatever it takes to win is what we are going to do," Reynolds said. "Whether it's getting into a groove running the ball or if we have to throw it 50 times a game. We are expecting our guys to play good defense and bring it for all four quarters."
Blaine Savage (6-0, 175) will play some at slot receiver, and last year he was also the team's leading tackler from his safety position on defense. Jackson Fletcher and Wesley Mason will be expected to contribute at receiver as well.
The secondary will be led by Chandler Foster, whose excellent coverage skills were noted by Reynolds. Experienced defensive end Jason Brumlow (6-2, 205), an outstanding wrestler, is also expected to be a leader.
Howard also won seven games last season and finished third in Region 2-4A. Coach John Starr has made sure his players have been well taken care of this offseason, and he has a team filled with speed.
The Hustlin' Tigers, however, will need new faces to step up on offense after losing nearly all of the players credited with statistical production last year — including all-region running back Eric Johnson. Howard's defense forced 36 turnovers and 48 tackles for loss and will need to be stout again.
East Ridge also had a winning season last year, finishing 6-5 overall and 3-3 against the league. Quarterback Cameron Sanders (5-11, 175) and running back Latrel Adair (5-10, 210) bring back great experience, and the Pioneers are also excited about their defensive backfield.
Hixson put a long losing streak to bed last season and will be led by new coach Josh Owensby. The Wildcats have a breakout candidate in Nyikee Logan (5-11, 180), who missed much of last season but could be in for a big year at running back.
Central could be a surprise team in the region with 18 starters returning. A talented backfield duo of speedster Noah Collins (5-9, 170) and bruiser Michael Watson (5-10, 202) will also welcome Notre Dame transfer Daishun Sims (6-3, 190), who brings big-game experience.
Team to beat: Anderson County has not lost a game in region play the past three seasons.
Watch out for: Central had a rough go of things in 2019, but with 18 starters back for the Purple Pounders, a group with another year of experience could surprise the region.
Best game: East Hamilton was 5-0 on the road last season and will get a big opportunity at Anderson County on Oct. 23.
Dream schedule: Howard has a home schedule that looks very winnable. The Hustlin’ Tigers could also be in good standing by the time they face East Hamilton in their region finale on Oct. 30.
Nightmare schedule: Outside of league play, Central’s schedule includes challenging matchups with Region 3-2A power Tyner (Aug. 28) — for the fourth straight season — and Baylor (Sept. 11), which could be one of the best teams in Division II-AAA this year.
Players to watch: East Hamilton’s Haynes Eller looks capable of putting up huge numbers in a quick-strike offense that could have a breakout performer in Kaunyae Burgans. Howard returns a bruiser in fullback Henry Owens (6-0, 235), while Kerrick Thorne (6-6, 180) and Chris Hall (6-5, 205) have excellent speed and ball skills that will be utilized, and linebacker London Cross (6-0, 220) is a force, too. East Ridge’s Chris Diaz (5-10, 200) is a sure tackler, and transfer Desmon Drake is expected to be a big playmaker for the Pioneers. Hixson’s Nyikee Logan and Central’s Noah Collins are versatile backs with the chance for big seasons.