One sure sign high school football season is drawing close is the release of the annual Murphy Fair statewide preview books.
Besides individual team previews, among the features in the 32nd edition of Fair's prep football preview publication for Tennessee are region predictions and preseason polls for all classifications, as well as preseason all-state selections — all of which are voted on by coaches.
The Chattanooga area is well represented with 23 players who earned preseason all-state recognition and six teams ranked in the top 10 in their respective classifications.
Teams will shift gears this week with five days of heat acclimation beginning Monday to prepare for next week, when they are scheduled to begin practicing in full pads. Whether those padded practices can begin next week, however, is in question as the state remains under Gov. Bill Lee's extended state of emergency order that would prevent contact during practice.
If the governor does not exempt TSSAA teams from his order, then contact drills and the start of the regular season would be pushed back one month. The TSSAA's Board of Control would have to vote on when contact drills and the season can begin.
McCallie, which won last season's Division II-AAA state championship, debuts as the No. 2-ranked team, behind Montgomery Bell Academy, the 2019 runner-up. Blue Tornado senior offensive lineman Austin Gentle, who along with his twin brother Jack is committed to Harvard, also earned preseason all-state recognition.
Also on the DII-AAA all-state team are Baylor quarterback Neyland Jean, along with Red Raiders running back Elijah Howard and defensive back Riley Jenne, who recently announced he will continue his career at Harvard. Boyd Buchanan senior tight end Luke Stum, who is being recruited by Georgetown University, is the only local player on the DII-AA preseason all-state team.
South Pittsburg, which has reached the semifinals three of the past four seasons, is the only area team ranked No. 1 in its classification. Pirates junior running back DeAndre Kelly and senior offensive lineman Jared Stone are on the preseason all-state team, joined in 1A by Copper Basin quarterback Bryson Grabowski and offensive lineman Chance Rollins and Sale Creek defensive back Braden Penny.
"Anytime your peers think enough of you to say they think you've got a chance to do something special, that means a lot," said Pirates coach Vic Grider, who enters his 21st season guiding his alma mater. "But honestly we don't make a whole lot out of preseason rankings because it's not where you are at the beginning, it's where you are at the end of the season, so it's time we finish the deal.
"We've won a lot of games over the last few years and been really close but haven't finished it, and the frustrating part is I really feel like we were good enough to be the team to win it all. The only way to do that is to keep giving yourself an opportunity, and that's what we've got again this season with guys like DeAndre and Jared and a good group of seniors."
Fair's publication also lists Grider among the state's top five coaches in winning percentage, with his .806 career mark ranking behind Oakland's Kevin Creasy (.890), Alcoa's Gary Rankin (.852), Christ Presbyterian Academy's Ingle Martin (.820) and Whitehaven's Rodney Saulsberry (.812).
Red Bank is ranked No. 4 in 3A and Meigs County is the preseason No. 4 team in 2A, followed by Tyner at No. 5, while East Hamilton is No. 8 in 4A.
Red Bank has three preseason all-state players: offensive lineman B.J. Ragland, defensive lineman Cameron Bell and defensive back Lumiere Strickland. On the 2A list are Meigs County running back Will Meadows and offensive lineman Malachi Hayden, as well as Tyner offensive lineman Jailin Worthy and defensive back Dre Ridley.
East Hamilton junior receiver Kaunyae Burgans, who recently received an offer from Eastern Kentucky, and senior defensive back Blaine Savage, who led the team in tackles and had five interceptions last season, earned spots on the 4A preseason all-state team.
"The biggest hurdle for us this season will be improving our mentality to fight through adversity and learn how to finish to win close games," Hurricanes coach Grant Reynolds said. "Last year we lost three games by a touchdown or less and had 12 combined turnovers in those games.
"Other programs that I've coached, when we were in close games, our guys knew we could find a way to win. That's the next step for us. Those two kids are big-time playmakers for us. They're hard workers and leaders that we will lean on."
Although no area teams are ranked in the highest two public-school classifications, McMinn County offensive lineman Bryce Goodner and running back Jalen Hunt and Bradley Central receiver Tray Curry are preseason all-state picks in 6A, and Walker Valley quarterback Tucker Pope is on the 5A team.