Oneida enters this week's season opener against Williamsburg in the Cumberland Falls Bowl in Corbin, Ky. having not won a game since Sept. 18, 2020.
The Indians were 4-0 at that time, fresh off a 39-0 shellacking of Cumberland Gap. Since then, however, they've lost five straight games. Throw in a covid loss to Coalfield, and the Indians finished last season with a 4-6 record.
That's somewhat deceiving. With the exception of a 42-19 loss to The King's Academy in early October, all of Oneida's games were close went to the wire. The Indians maybe should've beaten Upperman, a team that had gone all the way to the Class 3A semifinals the previous season, and had opportunities to knock off Rockwood and earn a home playoff game. They also took top-ranked Meigs County to the wire on a road game in Decatur.
That was then, this is now. The Indians open the 2021 season with a new coach — Jimmy May, who takes the helm after a lengthy stint as offensive coordinator for Tony Lambert, who left to move to the college ranks in the spring — and an eagerness to erase the bad tastes of last season. May hasn't let his new team forget the way last season felt.
“I remind them that we've lost our last five games,” he said.
The 2020 season was unusual for most teams, especially those unfortunate enough to be hampered by covid — and Oneida was one of those teams. The Indians were never really at 100% strength, mostly due to covid, and they played the first round of the Class 2A playoffs at Hampton without their top two centers.
“It's not excuses, it's just what happened,” May said. “It's been a long time since we've won one and we need to get back on track as quick as possible.”
The Indians will once again be favored to make the Class 2A playoffs in 2021, and with a lot of changes in the region, they'll also have their sights set on a region championship, something that has proven elusive the past few years. Gone is Meigs County, which has been the bully of the region since the last realignment. Also gone is Cumberland Gap. In are York Institute and Monterey, joining the Indians, Rockwood and Wartburg.
The expectations are always high at Oneida. May knows it, and embraces it. “This is a special place to be,” he said. “Not every school is like this. You have support. People encourage you. They want to come up and talk to you, (and) you have to appreciate that. It's better than the other end of it.”
This year, like most years, there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic as the season begins. The Indians lost some valuable players, none of them any more important than three-time all-state punter and dynamic running back Kolby Morgan, who is now at the University of Tennessee. But Oneida also returns a stable of talent, with a lot of athletes that will give May and his staff an opportunity to change things up a bit.
May said his team has worked hard in the preseason, and he's been pleased with the way they've approached the task at hand.
“I've not had a lot of issues with them not wanting to work,” he said. “It seems like they're focused on the season. We're just trying to focus on putting the team first. If you'll give everything for the team and sacrifice yourself for the team, all the other stuff, the individual stuff, will come later. Just worry about the name on the front of your jersey and play for that. That's what every coach wants, and they're buying in.”
The biggest and most evident change should be on the offensive side of the football. Lambert was a defensive mind, who preferred ball control and field position. May has been an offensive coach his entire career, and right of way fans can expect to see Oneida throw the ball more.
That's not necessarily all because of a coaching change, though May acknowledges that every coach wants to put their own stamp on the program. Rather, it's a change that's also dictated by personnel. The Indians have a lot of athleticism on this year's squad, and they want to find a way to put the ball into the hands of their potential playmakers. Even before Lambert resigned to accept a position at the University of the Cumberlands, the decision had been made to spread the field a little more this season.
“We felt like we had two good quarterbacks and a good group of wide receivers and we were talking about how we were going to spread it out more this year,” May said. “I've just tried to continue with that. We're really putting an emphasis on trying to stretch the field with these guys and we need to use them to try to keep people from putting everybody in the box on us like they used to do.”
Some of the changes on offense, though, are the result of the coaching change. As offensive coordinator, May had full control of the offense under Lambert. But as head coach, he's more likely to take chances.
“If I mess up now calling something and we get an interception, it's on me. It's my fault,” he said. “I wasn't gonna do anything to lose the game for (Lambert). I will probably take a few more chances, just because it's me. It's now on me and it falls back on me. We've got some tremendous athletes this year and we need to take advantage of them.”
The changes have already been evident. Through their first two scrimmages of fall camp, Oneida threw six touchdown passes.
“Hopefully it'll be successful,” May said. “There comes a point if you're not good at something you have to stop doing it. (But) we've gotten the ball out to receivers who can make plays (in the scrimmages) and that's what we want to do.”
Of the six touchdown passes tossed in the first two scrimmages, May said some of them were simple plays — like a short slant route that turned into a 50-yard footrace to the end zone.
“That's what some of these kids can do,” he said. “We just have to get them the ball in space and let them make plays with it.”
Fans can expect to see Oneida use two different quarterbacks. Caden Rector started the season at QB a year ago and performed well to open the season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in just the second game, against Wartburg. He's back for his sophomore season, and healthy.
Also back is senior Noah Buttram, who started at QB towards the end of the 2020 season. He battled injuries as the season progressed, but is healthy for his final season and offers a different dynamic.
“Caden has really improved on his arm strength and accuracy and threw the ball well in the preseason,” May said. “Noah is also throwing the ball well. He's a very good runner at the quarterback position and he's learning our system now.
“They both bring something to the offense,” May said of his two quarterbacks. “Caden has the ability to see what's going on, and Noah is more of a threat at running the ball because he's so much bigger. It's hard to go through the season with one quarterback any more. You need a couple. As long as we're making progress we're going to give them both a chance to play and see how it plays out.”
Younger quarterbacks who will lead the JV on Monday nights are freshmen Gabe Brennan and Tanner Buttram.
At runningback, Oneida has already experienced a blow, with junior Ashton Stephens going down with a season-ending knee injury during a scrimmage at Tennessee Tech. He was expected to be among the Indians' top ballcarriers this season, and had gotten off to a strong start.
Now, the Indians will turn to senior Rylin Duncan — though he, too, has been shaken up in fall camp — along with sophomore TJ Meredith. Senior Matthew Brown has moved to the runningbapk position as well, and junior Peyton Smart can play fullback or tailback. May said he has progressed this year.
Behind that group of ballcarriers will be a trio of younger players: Mac Duncan, Landon Boutwell and Caleb Reagan.
Junior Elijah Phillips will get the start at fullback and is a returning starter. Sophomore Nick Gilbert and senior Lorenzo Garcia will back him up.
The wide receiver group is talented, athletic and deep. It's that position group that gives the Indians the ability to throw the football this season.
“We feel like we have a pretty athletic group and a lot of guys that we feel like we can play this year,” May said. “Probably more than we have had in the past. We're looking forward to getting them all on the field at different times.”
Senior McLorne Love is a returning starter at the X position. May said he runs great routes and catches the ball well. Ben Buttram, another senior, backs him up after a position change.
A trio of juniors — Colten Daugherty, Todd Derek Ryon and Tait West — will all play at the Z position, and May said all of them have improved, with West getting strong and Daugherty and Ryon increasing their speed. A sophomore, Landon Limburg, has also worked his way into the mix.
Several other players could see time at wideout as well, including sophomore Jayden Anderson and junior Jeric Huling. Younger players who are competing for playing time include Levi James, Riley Gibson, Eli Sexton, Dylan Claiborne, Kenneth Vanhook, Josh Cole and Colby Tyra.
“We feel we have a lot of wideouts who have experience and we can play a lot of them without having a drop-off,” May said.
Up front on the offensive line, a veteran group will be anchored by returning starters Blayke Couch and Xavier Shoemaker, who are seniors, and junior Cameron Kidd. Caden Terry, another junior, will be at left guard, while junior John Selby and sophomore Nate King are competing for the starting nod at the center position.
“We have six guys competing for the five spots,” May said.
Behind them, senior CJ King will see some action on the offensive line, despite being primarily a defensive player. Junior Bryar Fry will see time at both guard spots after improving during the off-season. Jadon Burchfield, another junior, will likely see some time at center and tackle, and junior Caleb Harness will get some reps at the tackle position.
Younger players in the position group include Ethan Anderson, Will Jeffers and Aiden May.
The Indians are without two players who would've been in the mix. Isaac Morgan cannot play due to the car accident he was involved in last year, and Cameron Cash is out for the season, as well.
At tight end, senior Hunter Shoemaker returns as the starter after taking over the position in the middle of last season. Junior Isaac Martin and sophomore Austin Thompson will compete for some playing time there, as well. Haden Brawner, a sophomore, is listed as a tight end, as is freshman Aiden Frazier.
On the defensive side of the ball, the conversation has to begin with King on the defensive line. He was an all-state player as a junior and has the capability to be a dominant force.
“I would hope, if he can be the force I want him to be, he could plug up the hole on that side and they can't run that way,” May said. “That's what you want. They have to scheme and run away from him. He had a great spring and summer, he has a great attitude and works hard.”
Joining King on the defensive line will be Garcia at the nose position, where he returns as a starter, and Xavier Shoemaker as the tackle opposite King.
Behind that trio will be Caleb Harness at tackle, Jadon Burchfield and Nate King at nose. Cameron Kidd will also play a lot on the line, while Bryar Fry and Caden Terry could see reps, as well. Aiden May is likely to factor into the rotation, and Couch will see some time on defense to provide some depth, even though he's primarily an offensive player.
While there will be big changes on offense with Oneida planning to throw the ball more this season, there's a lot of new on defense, too, simply because Lambert isn't calling the plays. Either as head coach or defensive coordinator, Lambert has been in charge of the Indians' defense for 14 of the past 16 seasons.
This year, Mark Martin will be the team's defensive coordinator in his first year as a full-time assistant coach.
Nevertheless, Martin coached under Lambert, and the Indians' scheme will largely be unchanged. They'll be in the same base defense, using the same terminology, that they used under Lambert.
At defensive end for the Indians will be Noah Buttram at the ted and Matt Brown at the rover, at least to start. Hunter Shoemaker started at the ted position last year, but entered fall camp playing linebacker due to injuries at that position.
Gilbert will play some time at the rover position behind Brown, while Caden Terry, Isaac Martin and Austin Thompson can all play as well. Younger players at the position include Hayden Brawner, Aiden Frazier, Will Jeffers and Caleb Reagan.
Elijah Phillips is a returning starter at inside linebacker and is described by May as the leader of the defense — “the one who keeps them going.” Rylin Duncan, once he's 100%, will be the other inside linebacker. In the meantime, John Selby has been receiving a lot of snaps at the position, as has Shoemaker. Peyton Smart has also been moved to linebacker to add depth.
Other players at linebacker include Colby Tyra, Mac Duncan, Landon Boutwell, Dylan Claiborne and Ethan Anderson.
The defensive secondary is deep with quite a few guys who are pretty even. If that sounds like the receiving corps, it's because they're mostly the same players. Tait West and TD Ryon will hold down one of the cornerback positions, while Limburg will hold down the opposite corner spot. TJ Meredith and Colten Daugherty are the safeties, though Ben Buttram and Lorne Love will each play quite a bit there.
“We feel like we have a chance to rest some guys during the game,” May said of his depth in the secondary. “Our first game is against Williamsburg and they're going to be throwing the ball quite a bit.”
May is also pleased with the progress of one of his freshmen, Levi James. And although Jayden Anderson is listed as a linebacker, he'll likely play in the defensive backfield, as well. Younger players in the mix include Brennan, Tanner Buttram, Huling, Gibson, Eli Sexton and Josh Cole. Rector can play some time at defensive back if needed, as well.
“We'll probably be more athletic than we have been in a long time at that position,” May said.
The biggest issue for Oneida on special teams is replacing Morgan at the punter position. Morgan was especially adept at backing opposing teams up and pinning them inside the 20. Ethan Anderson, a sophomore, will slide into the role and has a big leg, though May said he needs to develop more consistency. Tyra will back up Anderson.
Aidan Love, a senior, is a returning starter at placekicker, and will be backed up by sophomore Kenneth Vanhook. Senior Hunter Shoemaker is the longsnapper, with Selby backing him up.
The bottom line
Oneida expects to once again be in the conversation for a region championship, though the task ahead won't be easy. Wartburg has improved, York is always good and has dropped down from Class 3A, and Monterey has also been good in recent years.
“You hope that we put ourselves into position to compete for the region championship the night we play Rockwood, but we gotta win those other ones first and that's not gonna be an easy road,” May said.
As he prepares for his first year at the helm of the program, May is excited to get started.
“I'm just thankful for this opportunity and I'm ready to try to do the best job I can,” he said. “The kids have been great. I just want to mold them into good young men so they can be productive in life. I told them, the wins and losses will take care of itself if you do what you're supposed to do.”