Sevier County tries to add strength to its skill
Getting two shots at superpower Maryville last season was a chance for Sevier County to measure itself against one of the state’s best teams.
The lesson the Smoky Bears took from a pair of blowouts was how far they had to go to compete at that championship level.
“I think it was great for us, because if we just would’ve played them in the playoffs and got beat the way we did, you could always walk away and say, ‘Well, we had a bad game,’” said Sevier County strength and conditioning coach Jon Hutchins. “Well, you get beat twice the same way, it’s not a bad game. You’re getting whipped. It was a good eye-opener for us.”
For a Bears team still stacked with skill-position talent, the deficit remains up front. New head coach Tony Linginfelter, who replaced Steve Brewer in the offseason, said this summer that the biggest thing the team needs to work on is its physical toughness.
So Hutchins continued a process begun last year when he focused on mental toughness by developing specific training programs for linemen. Players were more aggressive in their conditioning, putting a premium on explosive skills.
“Summer preparation, weight room, getting big on squats and the bench and all that stuff. All those main football lifts,” said senior defensive end Seth Arwood. “I think it really contributes to on-field work.”
Arwood is the only returning starter on a defensive line that is switching to a three-man front this fall. If he and his teammates can show the strides they’ve made up front, there should be plenty of room for the skill players behind them to wreak havoc.
That includes a new quarterback in Division I college prospect Deuce Wallace. The junior arrived in the offseason from Louisiana and must now follow record-setter and Tusculum College QB Luke Manning.
“Deuce’s strength is his experience because he’s a two-year starter from (New Orleans’ Riverside Academy),” the coach said.
Wallace will have plenty of experienced, speedy threats to work with, beginning in the backfield with Connor Bailey, a converted receiver, and the elusive Zach Sauls. While Jacob Whaley has graduated at the receiver position, the Bears remain stacked out wide with Devante Matthews, who led the team in receptions last year, as well as Dalton Ford, Jessie Adams and Austin Rice.
“This junior and senior group has played a lot of football since they were in little league football,” Linginfelter said. “They’ve played competitive teams in all the sports they play. ... A lot of people ask me about our skill people but we do a good job on the track team of trying to increase our speed. The ones that run track always get faster.”
Bailey, Rice and receiver Hunter Miniard all were part of a 1,600-meter relay team this spring that qualified for the state championships while Matthews and Ford showed their athleticism on the baseball team behind the plate and in the outfield, respectively. Miniard should get some catches at receiver while starting somewhere on defense. Rice will also be a “playmaker” at both receiver and defensive back, Linginfelter said. Those players, along with Adams, will also make up a veteran secondary for Bears co-Defensive Cordinator P.J. Burden.
On offense, Linginfelter said the line returns more experience than the coach can recall having in several years. Chaz McKinney was the only loss to graduation and Linginfelter said several members of the line have worked hard this offseason, including the middle three of Tyler Martin, Ryan Reagan and Matt Cole. Martin said the time the linemen put in this summer on legs, squats and footwork are paying dividends.
“All summer we wake up at 6 a.m., we get here early, we work out and then we go condition out on the field,” Martin said.
Defensively, Linginfelter said the goal this year is to be more balanced by getting tough up front and stopping the run better. Co-Defensive Coordinator Bryan Atchley said the team’s new three-man front will help Sevier County get more athletes on the field.
Arwood will be the centerpiece on the line with Desmond Pancotta, Jonathan Bersch and Luke Ellis rotating in. The linebacking corps will be equally green with the intermittent experience of Nate McGinnis, Kody Paul and Hunter Cates joining the more inexperienced group of J.D. Griffin, Zach Sauls, Walker Kesterson and Connor Rytz.
Whoever is on the field, success or failure will depend on being physical.
“We’ve talked about getting bigger, stronger, so when our competitors come we can beat them off the ball before they beat us off the ball,” Bersch said. “We’ve got to be more physical and if the ball comes toward us we have to hit the linemen out of the way and get to the quarterback.”