The return to normalcy, however gradual, has been the most welcome gift of 2021, and as the calendar nears a turn to August few things feel as normal in the Chattanooga area this time of year as the sights and sounds of prep football practices reverberating across school campuses.
With the start of the high school season just four weeks away, Monday marked the first day teams throughout Tennessee were allowed to begin practicing in full pads. So, for the 22nd straight year I made the annual Prep Tour, visiting as many area teams as I could fit into one day.
While I couldn't make it to each area school — Boyd Buchanan is at an out-of-town camp, Notre Dame didn't practice and a few others were just logistically impossible to get to in time. In the coming weeks our staff will preview every region with area Tennessee and Georgia teams and we'll also publish the annual prep football special section with season outlooks for more than 50 teams.
Today's total — 15 schools in a little over 12 hours, covering 229 miles. All times Eastern.
South Pittsburg, 7:17 a.m.: The Pirates will practice in the evening but there is a beehive of early-morning activity as new head coach Chris Jones has already been at his office for about two hours. Among the noticeable cosmetic changes around the field house — a large room that had been used to store equipment has been remodeled into the senior's lounge and separate locker room.
Among those seniors are all-state defensive lineman Gio Davis (6-4, 285), who has scholarship offers from Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Arizona State, and running back De'Andre Kelly (6-0, 195), who is also drawing considerable recruiting interest.
A former all-district Pirates player, Jones understands the expectations remain the same around the program — where the four previous head coaches all either won a state championship or at least played in the title game.
"Nobody has higher expectations for us than me, I can promise that," Jones said.
Chattanooga Christian, 7:52: The Chargers, who have soaring expectations despite only four offensive and two defensive starters returning, are already on the field, working on kickoff coverage.
There are 65 players on the roster, the most in program history, but only five seniors — including just two who will likely start. CCS could start as many as five freshmen and at least that many sophomores, including Boo Carter (5-11, 185), who is already a two-way starter at running back and defensive back and has an offer from Tennessee.
The Chargers season ended in disappointment last year when they had to forfeit in the quarterfinals due to a COVID-19 issue, which was the second straight season to lose in that round to the eventual state champion.
McCallie, 8:22: There are special teams players scattered across the field — some working on extra points while others field punts. The two-time defending Division II-AAA state champions must settle on a running back from among a group of inexperienced candidates and zero in on some others who could help build depth in the line.
"We'll see what everybody looks like and then at some point later this week, after the coaches talk it over, we'll call in a few younger guys and break their hearts by telling them they're being moved to the line and won't be carrying the ball," Blue Tornado coach Ralph Potter said.
Quarterback William Riddle is back and has one of the state's top receivers in Kenzy Paul, a 6-1, 190-pound Vanderbilt commitment. Defensively, senior nose guard James Howard — who is also one of the nation's premier prep wrestlers — is a nightmare to block, while the linebacker position — with the likes of Aaron Crowder and sophomore Carson Gentle (6-3, 220) — could be a strength.
Baylor, 9:01: Before going out to the field later in the day, the Red Raiders are testing to see how far they've progressed in the weight room. Surrounded by the entire team, junior running back Caleb Hampton cleans 285 pounds, and as the weights thud onto the floor everyone erupts in celebration.
This room is a college recruiter's dream as Baylor is loaded with prospects. That includes Virginia linebacker commitment Trey McDonald (6-4, 225), Army defensive line commit Bridger Knee (6-2, 250) and junior offensive tackle Brycen Sanders (6-6, 280), who has offers from Tennessee, Georgia, Ole Miss and Virginia Tech among others. Additionally, defensive lineman Marceo Collins and linebacker Decorian Jones-Montgomery are also being heavily recruited.
One player that coaches are anxious to evaluate on the field is junior quarterback Hugues Picard, a Canadian transfer.
Red Bank, 10:13: After more than two hours of weight room workouts and team meetings, the Lions are finally stepping onto the field. Despite moving up one classification to 4A, Red Bank is a serious contender to go even deeper in the playoffs than last year's semifinal run.
That's because, for one, perennial power Alcoa remained in 3A, and secondly, the Lions are absolutely loaded. Eleven total starters return, including running back/defensive back Reco Trimble — who has offers from South Carolina, Arkansas and North Carolina State among others — but he is far from the only gifted athlete.
The Lions are broken up into position groups and the motto "fast and violent" is clearly etched in players' minds on every collision.
Signal Mountain, 9:59: The Eagles are working on tackling fundamentals to begin before switching to the offensive portion of the day.
With only seven seniors on a roster of about 40, Signal Mountain will put a young team on the field when it opens the season against Hixson. The team must also find replacements for its top two rushers.
Central, 1:14: There are 16 juniors who took their lumps as sophomore starters last season but are now a year older and stronger, which should help the Purple Pounders take a big step forward.
"We'll be more equipped to compete again," said Central coach Curt Jones, who added that senior receiver/defensive back Noah Collins and senior running back/linebacker Mike Watson, along with junior receiver/safety Donovan Smith have emerged as team leaders.
Tyner, 2:03: The entire locker room area has been given a needed facelift, which includes more than just fresh coats of paint. There's also a new team meeting room — where the state championship gold ball trophy and two silver runners-up trophies sit on a table at the front of the room and new coaches office.
The on-the-field product should remain steady, as Scott Chandler has settled in and brought a calming affect after the program went through three head coaching changes in five months.
"We've got work to do to get where we want to be, but I think these kids have a chip on their shoulder and they're a very tight-knit group," Chandler said. "I'm telling you, we've got a chance to be pretty good."
Silverdale Baptist, 2:32: Having practiced earlier in the day, second-year Seahawks coach Mike Connor said, "The guys found out they weren't as prepared for a fast-paced practice as they may have thought."
Connor, who took over the program just one month before the pandemic hit last spring, admitted this feels more like a year-one process as players adjust to his offseason preparations. Senior Connor Delashmitt, who accounted for more than 1,200 yards in nine games last year and is already the program's career leader in total yards, leads the offense while junior linebacker Chase Manning, a transfer from McCallie, could become a big help on that side of the ball.
Ooltewah, 2:56: New head coach Goose Manning, a former Owls quarterback, was only hired earlier in July and admitted he's just now beginning to feel like he's no longer in scramble mode.
Manning wanted to start the day off by hearing the pads pop, "so we got after it pretty good," he said. "We found out our kids like to compete. We won't have that kind of full-pads hitting every day but it was good to find out how physical we want to be."
East Hamilton, 3:48: Since Hamilton County schools are not yet in session, and because there's no in service for teachers this week, the Hurricanes will have two-a-days all week, with time for dinner and meetings splitting the offensive and defensive practices.
Three top-level athletes — seniors Jeremiah Flemmons and Kaunyae Burgans and junior Juandrick Bullard — will line up in the Hurricanes backfield and although its a long way away, their game against Red Bank on October 22 promises to be a huge matchup that could decide the Region 3-4A title.
Brainerd, 4:38: With only 22 players on the roster, everyone will need to be ready to contribute.
"It's tough but I'm just going to have to be the 'Find a way coach'," said Panthers coach Stanley Jackson, who added that his team would focus all of Monday's practice on defense. "You've got to be able to stop people or games can get out of hand real quick with some of the teams we're playing."
Howard, 5:43: First-year head coach Dedric Maffett has fellow former Hustlin' Tigers star, and former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Terdell Sands instructing the linemen on their blocking assignments. When the mammoth 6-foot-8 Sands talks, not much is said back by any player other than 'yessir'. Smart kids.
Lookout Valley, 6:19: Roster numbers are always a concern here and similar to Brainerd, the Yellow Jackets have just 22 on the roster. That means head coach Josh Payne must be creative in finding ways for his team to scrimmage itself.
"You do a lot of teaching and then finding drills that simulate the game because we absolutely cannot afford to get anybody hurt before we get to the season," Payne said.
Marion County, 7:12: After taking a short heat break, the Warriors emerge from the locker room to finish their first day by working on tackling and defense.
Marion, along with back-to-back state runner-up Meigs County, last season's region champion Bledsoe County and perennially strong Tyner make up one of the area's toughest regions.
"People can look like a million dollars in 7-on-7 competitions but that ain't football," said Warriors coach Dale Pruitt, who is one win shy of 300 for his career. "There's a fine line between just enough contact and too much. We want to keep it on the safe side but we also need to learn to be physical because that's how the game is played."