The 2021 season is one of change for Scott High.
No, the Highlanders don’t have a new head coach; Josh Terry is at the helm for his third season at his alma mater.
No, the Highlanders don’t have a lot of new faces; many of this year’s key players were also on the field last season.
But Scott High is transitioning to Class 4A. As if things weren’t already difficult in a league that featured the likes of Alcoa and Gatlinburg-Pittman, the Highlanders are moving up a class due to the size of their school and TSSAA’s realignment.
Gone is Alcoa, but the Tornadoes are replaced by South Doyle, a powerful program at the Class 5A level last season. Gone is Gatlinburg, but the Highlanders are replaced by Anderson County, a team coached by former Scott head coach David Gillum that puts up explosive offensive numbers week-in and week-out.
Oh, and then there’s Knox Fulton.
Throw in non-region games against the likes of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and this may be the toughest schedule any Scott High team has ever played. Seven of the 10 players on the docket were playoff teams last year. The exceptions were Austin-East, Gibbs and Carter, three teams that are pretty good in their own right.
That’s a task that would be daunting with a roster that included a full compliment of 50 to 60 players — a size that would be more typical of a Class 4A school. But the team that Terry and his staff field this fall will include fewer than 35 players. In a school of nearly 900 students, that’s almost shockingly small. There are some Class A schools with larger rosters.
But if you’re expecting Terry to be milking for sympathy, you’re looking the wrong direction.
“These guys we’ve got, they’re tough, man,” Terry said. “They’re tough and they’re great men. If you were gonna pick 35 guys to dwindle it down to, I think this is a pretty solid 35 guys.”
And those 35 guys played big roles in what was largely a successful season for the Highlanders in 2020. Scott High finished 5-5, and was a breath away from 7-3. That’s easy to forget in all the covid mess, but the Highlanders were a play or two away from defeating arch-rival Kingston, and still feel like they had a game taken from them against Pigeon Forge, when a blown call cost them a playoff berth.
Terry said the way his team finished last season gives them some momentum as they enter 2021.
“I think our guys got that playoff just dipped on their tongue, then pulled back out, and they approached offseason workouts with a chip,” he said. “A lot of guys got stronger. A lot of guys got faster and quicker. I definitely do think we got some momentum at the tail-end of things, and there was just enough failure to kinda tick them off as far as working in the offseason.”
Still, the numbers are what they are, and the schedule is what it is, and that will create plenty of obstacles for the Highlanders this season. Terry said the small roster will create a juggling act for coaches.
“It’s going to be a teetering line all year between wanting to have physical enough practice so your guys are used to blocking and tackling and shedding blocks by the time the game rolls around, but you also want them there when the game rolls around so you can’t straight beat the devil out of them,” he said. “It’s a balancing act.”
Terry said the preference for coaches is to go hard in practice. This year, he said, those inner-squad dogfights in practice may have to be avoided somewhat so there isn’t a risk of banging up kids who can’t afford to be banged up when Friday rolls around.
“I don’t spend a lot of time talking about the differences between schools, but as one of the smallest 4A places, it’s also one of those rare cases where the land mass is one of the Top 10 in the state,” he said. “Your demographic of student body is traveling from further out to get to one centralized location, and less of those guys participate in sports. A lot of these kids are driving from Smokey and East and West Robbins and the tip of Winfield, and it’s tougher on those families at times to get into sports and stay into sports.”
Still, Terry is proud of the team he has, and he’s ready to go to work.
As Terry sat down to talk about his team prior to the final preseason scrimmage against Oliver Springs, his quarterback was senior Alex Chambers. A returning starter, Chambers is expected to be a more seasoned veteran of the position in 2021.
“Last year was ridiculously tough, as far as a situation to be thrown into at quarterback,” Terry said. “Usually every year you have a summer full of passing league, you have four scrimmages, so by the time that first game rolls around, if you’re a new quarterback and it’s your first start, you’ve actually seen action in eight different events as the team’s starting quarterback. Last year was a particularly hard year to start out as quarterback because you didn’t have any of those things.”
Terry said that Chambers got better each week as last season progressed, and has had a good offseason.
“He’s a smart, sharp guy,” he said. “He doesn’t put your offense in a bad situation. He makes good decisions. He’s decently athletic, as far as being able to pull it and run it when he needs to if the play breaks down. I’m pumped about Alex this year. He’s a hard worker and he’s a guy for our guys to rally and get behind as far as the attitude and demeanor he brings to the game.”
Backing up Chambers will be junior Brady Strunk — a name that Terry mentions a lot because he plays a lot of different positions on the field.
The running back position is one of the casualties of Scott High’s limited numbers. Junior Will Young appeared poised for a big season after bursting onto the scene as a sophomore, but he suffered a knee injury in the spring. He won’t be cleared until at least October.
Ashton Rowe entered fall camp as the starting runningback, but has opted not to play his senior season.
That means senior Cannon Vanhook will slide into the starting role, and Terry likes the tough, physical style he brings to the table.
“He’s a physical, mean kid,” he said. “He has decent speed, but he’s more known for his ability to slash and one-cut and stick it up and get tough yards. He’s versatile coming out of the backfield and catching the ball, too.”
When the Highlanders go with a two-back set, Strunk will be beside Vanhook if he’s not playing quarterback, though he’s primarily a slot receiver. Junior Will Russ could get some carries, as well.
At the receiver position, Strunk is the most versatile playmaker, described by Terry as “smart, heady and tough, everything you want in a competitor.” Phoenix Norris, another senior, holds down the Y position and brings versatility to the receiving corps. He can also line up in the backfield as an up back, or even play tight end. Sophomore Rylan Griffin is the X receiver, and even though he’s young, Terry said he possesses a fantastic skill set.
“He’s a little undersized but he has about as high a skill level as I can remember at that age, just being able to go up and play the ball in the air,” Terry said of Griffin. “He’s a good route runner and he can make rangy catches outside his frame.”
Alton Whaley, a sophomore, will take some reps at the receiver position, as well.
The offensive line position is the strength of the Highlanders’ offense, at least from an experience standpoint. That’s especially true on the left side, which is anchored by a pair of seniors in Skylar Smith and Cole Tucker.
Smith is an athletic tackle who was bench-pressing 325 before fall camp began, and is versatile enough to play inside linebacker. Tucker is a bigger lineman who is strong enough to double-drive but also athletic enough to pull and get to the second level on linebackers.
The center will be senior Zane Henry, while the right side of the line will be juniors Gavin Terry and Kolton Newport.
Repping in will be junior Clayton Carroll and sophomore Mateo Gibson at the tackle position, and freshman Jace Cloyd who came in squatting 425 lbs. and is as strong as any freshman Terry says he has coached.
Senior Jacob Reece is currently out with a knee injury.
Given his limited numbers, Terry said it will be important to find ways to give guys breathers as often as possible, since they’re playing both ways and can easily become winded.
Reece would’ve been the anchor of the Highlanders’ defensive line, but is out with the injury. In his place, the freshman, Cloyd, will get the start, and Terry describes him as a “Tazmanian devil” who flies off the football.
“Sometimes he gets a little gap shooty and shoots himself out of position but there are also times where that creates havoc,” Terry said.
Joining Cloyd on the defensive line will likely be Adrian Stanley, a junior who is agile for his size and is able to move about well on the line.
Junior Elijah Fletcher will start at one end, while Newport or Carroll will get the starting nod at the other end and are very similar in their build and ability. Gibson will rep at the end position, as well.
Gavin Terry will likely take some snaps on the defensive line, as will Henry and Tucker.
The linebacker position will feature Norris at the sam, and he’s a guy who can basically play anything in the back seven on defense, Terry says.
“He could play defensive back if I needed him to, (but) he’s certainly not lacking as far as size and strength to be able to play inside linebacker,” Terry said. “He’s incredibly smart. After you coach something to Phoenix, he can turn around and coach it to someone else. He has a very high retention rate.”
The Highlanders are still experimenting at the will linebacker position. Smith has taken some reps there in fall camp, and is likely to be in the lineup when opposing teams are going big in the short-yardage game. Russ can also play the position, and sophomore Luke Bowling is likely to see some time at linebacker, as well.
The secondary will feature Strunk as what the Highlanders refer to as their bandit, which is similar to a strong safety.
“We find as many ways as we can to keep him an outside force contain player to keep him in the run game and allow him to get downhill and make tackles,” Terry said.
The primary matchup guy in the secondary will be Vanhook, with sophomore Hugo Henry repping some at that spot, as well. Alton Whaley will back up Strunk.
The other DB positions will feature Nolan Cotton, a junior, and Griffin. Terry describes Cotton, a returning starter, as his savvy veteran who will get asked to do the most in the defensive backfield.
Senior Gavin Terry will also rep at the safety position.
Henry returns as Scott High’s placekicker, after starting there as a freshman. Terry said he feels comfortable kicking the ball from the 25-yard-line on in. Though Henry has connected on deeper kicks, that’s the distance at which he is most accurate.
The punter will be either Strunk or Stanley. The long snapper will depend on the punter. If Stanley is the punter, Strunk will likely be the long snapper. If Strunk is the punter, Norris will be the long snapper.
Strunk and Griffin will be the Highlanders’ return specialists.
The bottom line
All things considered — and the short roster and difficult schedule not withstanding — Terry said the playoffs are not an unobtainable goal for this year’s Scott High team.
“These guys, they don’t have to win for me to have vested respect and love for them,” he said. “Win, lose or draw, we’re doing it. It’s not going to be this one doing it and everybody else talking about them. If we get beat, we’re getting beat. If we win, we are who is winning. But playoffs is achievable. It stays a standard and a checkpoint for what your guys shoot for.”
Terry said he’s anxious to go to battle with his team.
“There’s a very, very high honor level and very strong leadership presence on this team,” he said. “It’s gonna need to be because obviously we have some obstacles going forward. All of the our regular standards, as far as achievements go, the things we shoot for and the things we strive for as a football team, they’re there. But win, lose or draw, these are guys I can lock arms with.”
The goals aside, Terry said the most important thing is the love for coaching, and the love for the game.
“Hopefully through everything that we’re doing this year, we can point and guide them to some bigger ideas in life,” he said.