After the annual mandatory two-week hiatus, high school football in Tennessee has hit the practice field running to get ready for the gridiron season that kicks off in just 44 days.
With the TSSAA “dead period” done, all four local high school squads cranked up pre season practice Monday sans pads for a couple of weeks, before putting on helmets and shoulder pads July 21. Full contact drills will start July 28.
“Our kids are starting to understand that off-season training is important. It’s a part of the process to becoming a successful program,” commented Cleveland High head coach Ron Crawford, who had nearly 100 players out for the first day of practice, including 39 freshmen.
“We’ve had unbelievable growth. The guys have worked hard in the weight room and gotten stronger,” he added. “We’ve got a big, veteran senior group (26) that is showing a lot of maturity in leading the team.”
After making a run to TSSAA Class 5A state semifinals last fall, the Blue Raiders are ranked sixth in a Tennessee coaches pre season poll. “We had a great season last year, which has sparked some excitement,” Crawford commented. “It’s flattering to be mentioned with the great teams from across the state, but we are going to have to match the passion we had last year.”
Across town at Bradley Central head coach Damon Floyd said his Bears were glad to get out on the field. “We had a lot of enthusiasm. The guys were excited to get outside and have everybody together. We’ve got several multi-sport athletes who have been involved in wrestling, baseball and basketball workouts during June, but now we have them all out on the field together.”
With around 96 players, including 30 freshmen, Bradley is looking to find the right combination to earn its fifth straight TSSAA playoff berth.
“We lost some really good seniors, but now it’s these guys turn to step up,” the Bear mentor remarked. “I’m excited about the talent we have. We’ve had a great off-season workout program, our leaders are leading and the team is giving a great effort.”
On the north end of the county, Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan was also glad to get back on the gridiron. “We’ve averaged 75 in our (off-season) workouts and we had 81 today (Monday), with a few more expected to come out. We are steadily getting more and more players each year.”
“I’m tickled with the effort and work ethic the kids are showing. We still need to get a little stronger, but we have some good young players who are excited to be able to get to it,” he added. “Now that we’re able to start putting our plays and schemes together, it will get more interesting.”
Over in Polk County, veteran coach Derrick Davis is relying on quality, not quantity for this year’s Big Red Train. “Our numbers are down, but the guys we do have want to be here. We made it a little tougher this year to stay with the team. We’ve weeded out some of the ‘sandwich eaters.’”
“Four years ago we had 75 players. This year we’ve only got 54, with 18 of them being freshmen,” he related. “A lack of depth is obviously a big concern, so we’ve got to be smart. I feel good about the kids we have.”
While the four teams are taking a little different approach in the time of their practices, with just a little over six weeks until the season opener, all are looking to find the right combination of players and the right schemes to fit their personnel.
To that end, the three Bradley County teams will once again participate in “passing leagues,” to work on their aerial attacks and defenses. Bradley and Walker Valley will travel to Heritage, Ga., and Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium respectively Thursday for the “helmets only,” “two-hand touch” action.
“It’s a chance to get in some competition. We get to work on our passing routes, as well as our timing,” remarked Coach Floyd. “It’s good for teams like us that use a spread offense, plus it gives us a chance to put in our defensive coverages.”
The Bears will also travel to “passing leagues” in Maryville (Tuesday), Lenoir City (July 16) and UT-Chattanooga (July 19) next week.
Walker Valley will be one of a half dozen teams at Finely Stadium Thursday and then travel to Boyd-Buchanan on July 17 for a five-team event.
“Last year we had a couple teams come here (to WVHS for passing events), but this year we’ve decided to go down for a couple of competitions Boyd-Buchanan is putting on,” explained Coach Ryan.
Known for their passing attacks the last several years, Cleveland will get into the aerial action Saturday at Maryville College. The Blue Raiders will travel to Boyd-Buchanan Tuesday and join the Bears at UTC on July 19.
Over in Benton, Coach Davis is still trying to get somebody interest in doing a “running league.” “Everybody knows we don’t throw the ball much, so we’ve never done the ‘passing leagues.’ We will have one day where Murray County (Ga.) will come up and we’ll have ‘passing session’ with them.”
Once they are allowed to put on full pads, the teams will have two or three scrimmages in early August, with the regular season getting underway Aug. 21 when Cleveland travels to Finley Stadium to take on McCallie in special Thursday night game.
The following evening (Aug. 22) Polk County will come to Bear Stadium for the annual Backyard Brawl against Bradley, while Walker Valley will play host to East Ridge.