Although preseason workouts and conditioning have been happening for a couple of months, the true countdown to the prep football season's kickoff began Monday when teams across Tennessee were allowed to begin practicing in full pads.
For the 23rd straight year I made stops at as many area schools as could be crammed into one day.
While I couldn't make it to each area school, 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.
The final total from Monday: 19 total schools in just over 14 hours, covering 282 miles. All times Eastern.
7:29, Baylor: Practice won't begin for another 15 minutes but a group of offensive linemen are already on the field to get an early start on going over some blocking assignments. One of the first coaches on the field is new defensive coordinator Chris Brown, who came over after a successful stint as Red Bank's head coach.
Asked what time he arrived at the coach's office, Brown smiled and said, "Around 5:30."
Moments later new Red Raiders coach Erik Kimrey, who built an impressive resume' at Columbia, South Carolina's Hammond School — 12 state titles in 17 seasons, including six straight — watches from behind a line of players as the team begins to stretch.
"Let's go! Time to wake up and get going!" shouts longtime Baylor assistant Eric Westmoreland as he directs the warmup session.
8:08, McCallie: Workers are putting the finishing touches on the school's new artificial turf, which replaces the 10-year old surface. Until their job is complete, the Blue Tornado will have to move to the old practice field behind the stadium.
Any thoughts of a drop-off in talent for the three-time defending Division II-AAA state champions are quickly put to rest as head coach Ralph Potter rolls through the name of returning talent. That list includes three starting offensive linemen and running back Tario Price on offense, plus junior quarterback Jeremy St. Hilaire (6-4, 210), the latest Canadian transfer.
Asked to assess St. Hilaire's potential, Potter grins and says only, "We're glad he's here."
8:41, East Ridge: As a group of linemen return to the field from a water break, one aggravated assistant yells out, "Why are we walking? Let's go!"
The linemen then take their turn on the blocking sled, firing off in rhythm on their coach's command. About 30 yards away, new Pioneers head coach Chad Barger is patiently instructing a group of young backs on their footwork and how to cut upfield off of a block.
As Barger steps away from instructing one group he sees a linemen, off to himself and bent over heaving.
"Who's over there puking," Barger yelled, before asking the player, "You good?"
9:13, Tyner: Players are milling around the locker room, putting the final touches to their equipment before making their way to the field.
Rams coach Scott Chandler said it will be a lighter contact day, but that the team will "crank up the contact" on Tuesday.
"We have to work on defending the run game and being able to run the ball on offense," Chandler said. "All of that is about being the more physical team on the field. We've spent most of July working in 7-on-7 passing stuff, so now it's time to actually work on what wins games."
With a roster of 72, including 18 seniors, the Rams have all the ingredients for a special season. Quarterback Josh Jackson (6-3, 208) and running back Jersey Chubb (5-11, 225) return in the backfield and lineman Journe Norwood (6-3, 295) is drawing recruiting interest from South Carolina, Memphis, Alabama-Birmingham and Middle Tennessee State.
9:48, Silverdale Baptist: Practice has just ended and the team is huddled around head coach Mike Connor. As Connor dismisses them, one player begins jogging alone, stopping every five yards to do up-downs as punishment for being late to practice.
The Seahawks will have to find replacements for 85% of last season's offense, but do have every offensive line starter back, as well as all-state quarterback Brett Rogers.
"It'll be running back by committee, at least for a little while," said Connor, who has seen the roster grow from 42 to 65 since last year. "My big concern right now is getting everybody back on the field. We've got four pretty good athletes who are still involved in summer baseball, and two of them are our starting cornerbacks."
10:16, Ooltewah: At one goal line the offensive and defensive linemen are squaring off, with assistant Aaron Sauter barking before each snap, "Drive them off the ball!"
As is usually the case during any line drills, a little extra pushing and shoving happens after each play is blown dead. About 40 yards away, Owls coach Goose Manning is getting a workout playing defensive back as quarterbacks and receivers work on timing patterns.
11:01, Red Bank: The Lions are in a group offense drill and it doesn't take long for sophomore running back Duane Morris to show why he already has an offer from Vanderbilt. Taking a handoff on a jet sweep, Morris sticks his left foot in the ground to cut upfield, then glides through the defense.
Ted Gatewood is entering his first season as the Lions head coach but has proven himself at previous head coaching stints with Ooltewah — where he guided the program to its first-ever playoff appearance — and East Hamilton — where he built the program from scratch.
"It's a special feeling to be coaching at my alma mater," Gatewood admitted. "I love this school and community, but what really makes it special are the kids. We've got a pretty talented group and they're hungry to be good."
11:39, Signal Mountain: Although practice is over and the team has quickly left the field house, head coach Josh Roberts is meeting with an assistant to talk about the next day's practice, discussing some players who may be given a shot at different positions.
"We opened up today with some old-school Oklahoma drills just to sort of set the tone that we need to be physical," Roberts said. "Our kids are at a point where they're tired of hitting each other. They're ready to see somebody else."
Former head coach Bill Price, who helped lead the Eagles to the 2010 Class 2A state title, is back to assist with the offensive and defensive lines.
"Bill will make sure we're tough up front," Roberts said. "That's just what he does. We aren't real big overall so we're planning to go up-tempo a lot to try and wear on teams. We'd like to snap a new play every 15 seconds, so a big part of what we've been working on is our conditioning."
2:40, Boyd Buchanan: For anyone who only knows legendary coach Gary Rankin as an old-school, gruff sideline stalker, it would be a stark contrast to see his transformation when 10-month old grandson J.C. enters the room.
"Here's the reason I left Alcoa and came to Chattanooga," said Rankin, the state's winningest coach with 467 career wins and 17 state titles. Rankin's older son J.T. was already on the Bucs staff. "We wanted to be closer to our family. My wife is Lolly and I'm Pop to the grand babies."
As the team makes its way onto the field, former Chattanooga Christian head coach Mark Mariakis emerges from the locker room with an arm full of pads. Mariakis didn't hesitate when asked what the best part of being an assistant is, "When a parent comes up to complain I stop them before they get going, point to Coach Rankin and say 'I'm not the head man. The guy in charge is over there,'" Mariakis said with a laugh.
3:37, Brainerd: After a fairly mild day weather wise, the sun has popped out and the humidity has officially arrived. The Panthers have a sophomore class with tons of potential, headlined by Martels Carter Jr., one of the state's top-rated prospects for the 2025 class. Also, as one Panthers coach noted, senior defensive end Donivon Thomas (6-5, 230), "is going to hurt some people's feelings."
4:02, Notre Dame: As the rest of the team makes its way onto the field, three quarterbacks are already taking shotgun snaps and working on their dropbacks. One nearby assistant jokingly reminds the quarterbacks, "Y'all should look like a dance group — same footwork every time."
After a couple of weeks of 7-on-7 scrimmages, Fighting Irish coach Charles Fant didn't waste time letting players get after each other with a physical inside drill
"We've get to be physical now that we have the pads on," Fant said with a grin. "That's where we see which players have put in the work and are ready to go."
4:37, Chattanooga Christian: New head coach Phil Massey is going over a few last-minute notes with his players in the team's theater-style meeting room. As players leave the meeting and make their way through the school's impressive 11,000-square foot weight room, the first few certainly pass the eye test.
"We've got some kids who can play," Massey said, singling out junior athlete Boo Carter, who's one of the state's top junior recruits, and senior transfer quarterback Jordan Gile (6-2, 200), who already has offers from Kansas and Florida Atlantic.
"The thing we're working on right now is bringing together all that individual talent to become a team."
5:15, Howard: The Hustlin' Tigers are waiting out the afternoon humidity and a potential thunderstorm inside the gym. When the team steps outside, senior offensive lineman Miles Houston (6-3, 280) immediately stands out from the rest.
"He's already got an offer from Maryville College and will get a lot more," said Howard coach Dedric Maffett. "We could be pretty good up front, but we've got to replace our whole secondary. One new kid to watch our for, Tariq Morris, can be a big-time help in several areas."
5:48, Soddy-Daisy: As music blares from the weight room next door where the skill-position players are maxing out, the offensive linemen gather around new head coach Carter Cardwell as he gives them final instructions before they head to the field.
The Trojans have 80 players on the roster and lots of experience back, starting with four offensive line starters plus three of four secondary starters and quarterback Slater Hickman.
"We had several early games last year where we were forced to play some younger guys because starters had to sit out due to COVID contact tracing," Cardwell said. "That was a tough time then, but it should pay off now because it allowed those young guys to get some quality game experience."
6:24, Hixson: The offense is going rapid-fire, running one play after the other with only an occasional quick break for coach Josh Owensby to quiz backs and receivers on their blocking assignment or pass route.
7:04, Central: It's almost as if the Purple Pounders have a cloning machine as most of their skill position athletes have near identical height, weight and speed. Finding replacements for all but one offensive line starter will be the key to the season.
There are 22 seniors — including receiver/defensive back Donovan Smith, who is being recruited by UT-Chattanooga, Army and Austin Peay — and defensive end Chris Nichols will be a problem for opposing blockers, but sophomore quarterback Ronye Watson might already be the team's leader.
7:41, East Hamilton: It's hard to imagine another area team with more returning offensive production. That list is headlined by running back Juan Bullard, who rushed for 1,800 yards and led the city in touchdowns, and also includes quarterback Lake Clark, a 1,700-yard passer.
6-foot-4 senior receiver David Cole, who already has offers from Navy, Toledo, Eastern Kentucky and Kennesaw State, could be the city's best receiver, and mammoth tight end Zachariah Laboo (6-7, 240) is in line for a breakout season.
8:48, Marion County: The Warriors are putting the finishing touches on the day's workout, but after one final snap, new head coach Tim Starkey calls out to a defensive back, "If you back-pedal like that somebody is just gonna run right by you. You've got to turn your hips and run."
All-region senior Alex Condra is the leading returning rusher, but sophomore Sam Pickett looks like a game-changer.
"He like a Swiss Army knife," Starkey said. "We'll use him in a lot of different ways. He has to be on the field and get his hands on the ball."
9:17, South Pittsburg: The lights are on at the practice field and the Pirates are ending their first day with team offense.
As coach Wes Stone yells out, "Nascar!" the Pirates sprint into position and begin running their up-tempo plays. The trio of two-sport all-state senior athlete Jayden Mount, plus juniors Racash Kelley — who also earned all-state status last year — and Kamden Wellington will all get snaps at quarterback, running back and receiver.
"We only have five total starters back," said Stone, who helped guide the Pirates to last year's Class 1A state title. "We've got some guys who have waited their turn and could become good players. Those three are difference makers."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.