Photo by Elmer Smith
Grainger Today Correspondent
RUTLEDGE – The loss of 19 players from the 2016 Grainger High School Grizzly football team and a senior class of only 10 players has created a challenge for Grizzly head coach Chad Tate, defensive coordinator Steve Finchum and coaches Randy Holt, Barry Liles, David Sands, Rob Sykes, David Redding, Zach Holbrook and Brian Collins.
As a result of the losses, the 2017 version of the Grainger Grizzly football team is short on experience and depth. “We don’t have as many seniors in number,” said Tate, “but we have some good players in our senior class that will make big contributions.” However, there is talent in the junior class despite the lack of experience. The coaches have been hard at work, with practice and scrimmages, giving the players a test of real time hitting in a controlled game situation.
The lack of experience and depth is especially prominent in the trenches where the Grizzlies lost three starters in the offensive line and all the starters on the defensive line. However, it appears that the offensive line has somewhat exceeded expectations as Tate states, “I have been pleasantly surprised by the offensive line. They have looked really good in the preseason and have come together.” Coach Holt and Holbrook have done a great job with getting the offensive line ready. Seniors Clayton Shipman and Cody Staley will be instrumental in the success of the offensive line, with sophomores Peyton Blake and Rylan Gray moving into starting roles. That group has been rounded out by senior Devon Kinsler, who was asked to move from running back to the offensive line. “He is just awesome,” said Tate. “He has made us a lot better by moving to that position.”
With the Grizzlies’ run-first offensive plan, the Grizzlies have a number of players who have both the skill and experience to be major contributors in moving the ball down the field. As it is in any offense, the quarterback position is critical in putting points on the board. “The role of the quarterback is to run the option and make throws when we need them.” Manning that position is senior Zac Courter, who saw action as a sophomore and became a major part of the offense as a junior. Playing behind him will be senior Jacob Bunch, sophomore Bryson Collins and freshman Tristan Warfield.
Although he is backing up the quarterback, Bunch will be the featured running back. He led the team in scoring with 16 touchdowns and 11 two-point conversions last year, while racking up almost a thousand yards of rushing. Behind Bunch is a group of inexperienced runners that include juniors Brandon Greenlee and Tommy Martinez, as well as sophomore Drake Farrow.
The slot back position is the area in which the Grizzlies are the strongest. That position is led by junior Preston Owens. “Preston is a dynamic player who had a big winter in the weight room and in spring training and continued to get better during preseason practice,” said Tate.
Another outstanding player at the position is junior Mark Lemka, who is another talented athlete who can do it all. In addition, the Grizzlies will have seniors Reagan Wiser and Andrew Armstrong, who will be seeing action. “I’m very happy with that group,” said Tate. “It’s as good a group as we’ve had at the position.”
The tight end position is being manned by senior Chase Muncey, who is a talented physical player who loves the contact from that position. He has been doing a great job of blocking and makes a big target for those times that the Grizzlies will be putting the ball in the air. Muncey will be backed up by juniors Jake Myers and Kannon Roberts, with sophomore Carter Randolph joining the mix.
In the Grainger offense, the wide receiver position will be a blocker first and then make a catch when the Grizzlies choose to throw the ball. The wide receiver corps consist of four juniors, Mike Cardoza, Logan Moody, Tyler Hodge and Jeb Moore, along with sophomore Bryson Collins. The players from this group who can block will see the most time on the field.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Grizzlies return only one starter from last year, so a major rebuilding of the entire unit presents a big challenge to defensive coordinator Steve Finchum and the other defensive coaches. Although he was not a starter on the defensive line last year, Clay Shipman, a senior and three-year player, saw considerable action on the defensive line where he will be leading the defensive effort from the nose position. “The defense starts/stops at nose man,”’ said Tate, “and Shipman can dominate games with his physicality and make big plays to get the defense off the field.” Joining Shipman at the nose position will be junior Tommy Martinez and sophomore Lawrence Ratliff.
Andrew Armstrong is making the best of his senior year as he has had a good winter in the weight room, as well as strong showings in the spring and summer. Joining him in search for playing time will be junior Kannon Roberts, who has continued to improve his game. In addition, senior Tyler Clark; three juniors, Parker Owen, Logan Johnson and Justin Bowlin; along with three sophomores Rylan Gray, Peyton Blake and Ryan McAnally have the opportunity to see increased playing time as the coaching staff is looking to develop as much depth as possible in order to keep fresh troops in the trenches. Since the lack of depth will require most of the players to play on both sides of the ball, the development of depth is a major goal for the coaching staff.
The inside linebacker position will be manned by two experienced players in seniors Jacob Bunch, who has seen significant playing time at the position, as well as Cody Staley, who has experience at the position. A pair of juniors, Jake Myers and Logan Moody, have great potential, and their ability to elevate their games will be a key for the success of the Grizzly defense. Joining that foursome will be sophomores Carter Randolph and Cannon Morgan.
The outside linebacking position will feature the senior duo, Chase Muncey and Devon Kinsler, who are strong physical athletes that Coach Finchum has put in a position to be successful.
The rover position, which Tate describes as “like a hybrid safety”, will be manned by Mark Lemka, a junior who saw a lot of playing time at the position and made big plays last year. The number two man at the position will be sophomore Ben Pratt.
The only returning starter for the defense is junior Preston Owens, who is manning the free safety position. Owens, a big time player who has great instincts, will be making sure the defense is lined up correctly. Joining him at the position will be sophomore Drake Farrow and freshman Tristan Warfield. The strong safety position has junior Brandon Greenlee, sophomore Bryson Collins and freshman Hunter McBee vying for who will get the starting nod and who will be the second to be on the field at the position.
The corner position will be manned by a pair of seniors, Reagan Wiser and Zac Courter, leading the way as they have experience playing at the position. However, coach Tate doesn’t want to use Courter unless it is absolutely necessary as his position at quarterback can not be jeopardized. Senior Marcos Bueno; a trio of juniors, Tyler Hodge, Mike Cardoza and Jeb Moore; and freshman Dawson Holt are competing for playing time.
Special team kickers will be Clay Shipman, Peyton Blake and Marcos Bueno, with Zac Courter, Jacob Bunch and Clay Shipman handling the punting chores. Shipman or Jake Myers will be handling the long snapper position. Returning the kicks for the Grizzlies will be Preston Owens, Mark Lemka, Jacob Wiser or Jacob Bunch.
Although Region One football has been realigned, it doesn’t get any easier, as Cherokee and Volunteer have been replaced by Elizabethton and Union County. However, the Volunteer Falcons have remained on the schedule. Another negative from the schedule is that the Grizzlies will not play on week one of the season and then will face the daunting task of playing 10-straight weeks with no time off. That has a particular impact on the Grizzlies whose depth is suspect.
“The only way to get better is to get out there and play,” said Tate. “We know they are going to make mistakes, but as long as they’re running and giving effort, we’ll coach them up. We have to get them ready mentally, but as long as they will give the effort, we’ll be okay. I want us to be the best people and football player we can be and to win football game. If we bring it every week with the people we’re playing, everything else will take care of itself.”