Listen: Oneida football coach Jimmy May
Oneida | There were a lot of unknowns when Oneida made the drive across Highway 92 and up to Corbin, Ky. last August to face an explosive Williamsburg team: A new head coach, a new defensive coordinator, the loss of key playmakers to graduation.
It was a trip that saw Oneida limp home after giving up 50 points to the pass-happy Yellow Jackets. At that point, in late August, few people might have imagined that the Indians would finish as one of the eight best teams in Tennessee Class 2A football.
But, a couple of months later, there they were: a nine-win football team facing Hampton at home in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs. Giving up 50 points to Williamsburg seemed a lifetime past. The Indians were much-improved on defense, rapidly getting better on offense, and looked to be in good shape to get to the semifinals for the first time in 13 years.
That game against Hampton didn't go the way Oneida had hoped; the Bulldogs made the long trip to Oneida and drove away with a resounding win. But just getting to that point gave the Indians something to hang their hat on. And despite losing a lot of size and a lot of experience to graduation, Oneida appears to be positioned to once again make a push for a region championship and, perhaps, a deep playoff run.
Last year, Oneida's strength was its brute strength — the guys in the trenches; the front seven on defense. This year, the Indians' strength should be their playmakers. They have speed and athleticism all over the field — players that were talented but inexperienced a year ago, but many of whom made their mark during that nine-win campaign.
Caden Rector, coming off an ankle injury that cost him much of his freshman season, set a single-season school record for pass completions as just a sophomore. Much of that success was due to senior wideout McLorne Love, who set a single-season school record for receptions. The lanky outside target is gone, but Rector has plenty of playmakers to toss the ball to. And with head coach Jimmy May proving true to his word last year when he promised he was going to throw the ball more, he expects Rector to have a 1,000-yard passing season as a junior.
“I think there's bigger things on the horizon for him this year, and leading this team, because he's got the skill guys outside to get the ball to,” May said of Rector.
May's play-calling last year — his first season as a head coach since he shared the duties with the late Keith Henry in 2004 — was not a flash in the pan. He said he intends to continue throwing the ball.
“We've got to get people out of the box, and that's one of the things we can do to keep them from getting seven or eight guys in the box,” he said. “Receivers have got to be able to win one-on-one battles. They've got to be athletic enough to win that, and I think we can, and then you just have to take your chances.”
In fact, while May didn't say so, the Indians might be prone to throw the ball even more this season than they were a year ago. They lost some key players on the offensive line and will need to gel there. And there is a concern of depth at running back, though junior TJ Meredith is a speedster who — like his dad, Phil Meredith — has the potential to change the game on any given play.
The decision on whether to throw or run will be determined by field position. And May knows that his team has to be able to run the ball, “Or it's going to be a long night because they're just going off on you,” he said. Oneida's biggest win last season was a road win at South Greene in the playoffs. The Rebels were a state-ranked opponent, and the Indians put up 35 points by running the ball almost at will.
When Oneida does run, it will have to have more people to tote the ball than just Meredith. That's partly because of the junior's size; while he's lightning-quick, he's not very big. So May's question is who goes in when Meredith comes out.
“The days of just lining up in formation and giving it to a kid 30 times (are over),” May said. “You've got to have two or three kids to take the ball.”
Senior Westen Hurst is listed as a wide receiver, but may be called upon to carry the ball at times, as will fellow senior Peyton Smart and junior Reice Kennedy.
“We've got four guys that we're going to try to see how that's going to happen,” May said. “They're learning, so we'll just have to see who has the hot hand.”
As for the receiving corps, the biggest task will be to replace Love, who had 50 receptions last year and as an exceptional route-runner with good hands. But one thing the Indians aren't lacking are bodies to run out at the position. May expects to use quite a few of them.
“I'm trying to make sure we get people rest, because they're playing defense, too,” he said.
With lots of depth, May said there may not be a 50-ball receiver among this year's group. Instead, he said, he expects to spread the ball out more, among players like Jeric Huling, Todd Derek Ryon, Landon Limburg, Levi James, and Hurst.
And, at the end of the day, spreading the ball out more isn't a bad thing.
“It's good because (the defense) can't just concentrate on one receiver,” May said. And, he added, all of his receivers are capable of making big plays.
The Indians' biggest loss to graduation on the offensive side of the ball was up front, and May and his staff have shuffled players around a bit to fill holes. He said that senior Jadon Burchfield, a converted center, will have to step up at that position. Meanwhile, senior John Selby was moved to tackle to take advantage of his athleticism. Other players up front will include seniors Caden Terry and and Cameron Kidd, with senior Bryar Fry and sophomore Aidan May battling for a starting spot.
Not that the offensive front will be limited to just the first five. May said you have to have at least eight or nine players who can play on Friday nights, especially since many of them will also be playing on defense.
Senior Isaac Morgan is finally back on the field after nearly two years of rehab following a traffic accident and guys like senior Caleb Harness will also get key reps. May has plenty of younger players with potential who could factor into the mix, as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, Oneida's strength a year ago was its front seven. It was difficult for teams to run successfully between the tackles. And the Indians' secondary, a question mark at the beginning of the season, grew up as the year progressed. This year, those defensive backs will be the strength of the defense, with starters back at every position.
This year, as May and second-year defensive coordinator Mark Martin fill the holes left by graduation, they also want their defensive front to put more pressure on the quarterback than they were able to a year ago.
“Last year they had too much time to throw the ball sometimes, and when you've got sophomores and juniors back there (in the secondary), some of them in their first year playing back there, it's a lot on them,” May said.
Because Oneida won't be as big up front as it was a year ago, it's even more important to generate pressure from different areas.
“We're going to see if we can give them some looks that may confuse them a little bit,” May said.
When it comes to the front seven, one of the leaders for Oneida will be senior Elijah Phillips. From his middle linebacker position, he'll be the defensive signal-caller, and May will call on him to play a big role.
“We're looking for him to get everybody lined up correctly,” he said. “And he's got to make plays on the field, and I think he will. He made plays last year but he's going to be asked to do it more this year and help the younger guys out. We're looking for big things from him.”
In the secondary, Limburg returns at one cornerback position after recording 15 pass-breakups as a sophomore. Ryon also played a key role last year, and Tate West and Levi James have plenty of potential in the secondary.
“We feel comfortable with those four and they have gotten better,” May said.
After getting beat at times against Williamsburg in last year's season opener, Oneida's defensive backs gained confidence as the season progressed. May said summer passing leagues has helped his secondary get even better.
Meredith, Colten Daugherty, Huling and Hurst will be the safeties, and all of them will play key roles, as well.
“We're looking for big things out of them,” May said.
The Indians won't have to wait long to see if they've gotten even better since last season ended, as Williamsburg will again be pass-happy and very capable, returning most of their playmakers from last year.
The Indians finished second to Rockwood in Region 2-2A last year, upsetting Monterey along the way to earn a home playoff game.
Wartburg played Oneida to within a touchdown last year and has a new coach this year. York also has a new coach. May thinks both will be improved, which will make for a competitive region.
“I think you've got a lot of teams in there that's gonna be kinda even,” he said. “It's going to be a tight region race.”