With the start of the 2021 prep football season now just a month away, Chattanooga area programs are hitting the stretch run of the preseason camp circuit.
By now coaches have a great idea of what their team's strengths and weaknesses are — and so do we. This week sports editor Stephen Hargis and staff writer Lindsey Young will analyze some of the most notable positional groups in the area and what makes them stand out.
The final group is also the last line of defense. Elite secondaries have to be able to combine good coverage skills with the ability to tackle in space. Even one weak link can be the difference from a great secondary to an average one. The following groups have what it takes to excel:
It's not often a team's secondary becomes a highlight focal point, but that's where the Indians' back four is headed. Head coach Shawn Peek has a four-headed monster of two-way players who can turn a game around on any play.
Sophomore cornerback Nic Hester is already one of the best athletes on the team and is already adept at baiting quarterbacks, while senior cornerback Jaylon Johnson doubles as the team's leading returning receiver and is noted for his ability to track the ball in the air on both sides of the ball.
However, it's the Indians' safeties, Rowan Burdick and Lashaun Lester, who routinely draw the oohs and aahs from fans. Lester (5-10, 210) is better known for his three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but several of the colleges recruiting him like him on the defensive side even better. Burdick (6-foot, 175), a state championship wrestler, has earned a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the area.
"I think in the secondary we have a chance to be outstanding," Peek said. "Our two safeties can get you on the ground and they are both ball hawks. We've got two really good corners and really six guys we feel comfortable with back there."
The key to the Yellow Jackets' secondary is its versatility, according to head coach Clay Stephenson, and that starts with senior cornerbacks Cole Speer and Quin Smith.
The duo, who are also the team's leading returning receivers, are comfortable in man-to-man and zone coverages, letting the coaching staff change schemes giving the opponent and situation. They combined for eight interceptions, eight other passes broken up and 111 tackles a year ago.
"They are both long and fast and athletic," Stephenson said. "We feel good with mixing those into man-to-man coverage or zone. It's easier to make that call when you have experienced guys like that back there. We can trust them with pretty much any situation."
The safety spots feature Christian Heritage transfer Gage Leonard and junior Dustin Kerns. Strong safety Leonard has already wowed the staff with his big-hitting ability and Kerns, who Stephenson says is one of the team's top athletes, should see plenty of action at free safety. Brendon Gray, Blaze Hammett and Luke Hawkins will get plenty of snaps as well as the staff tries to keep Speer and Smith fresh.
The Tigers, who have finished as Class 2A state runners-up each of the past two seasons, bring back all four starters from last year's secondary. The group includes Cam Hucabey, who earned all-state recognition last season and has filled out to 190-pounds. With a 300-pound bench press, he's a heavy hitter and versatile enough to play either cornerback or safety. Jackson Shaver is also a senior who started at corner in last year's title game, while Bryson Falls and Logan Carroll are back at the safety positions. Add in junior Hunter Brightman, who has earned his way onto the field to help as a nickel back when the Tigers use five DBs, and it's clear the secondary is the strength of the defense.
"We've got plenty of big-game experience an I love the way those guys show up to work every day and just their knowledge of the game," Tigers coach Jason Fitzgerald said. "They're also all very physical."