By Keeli Parkey
The 2018 season was one of the most memorable in recent history for the Unicoi County High School football program. In addition to finishing with a 9-3 record, the Blue Devils also hosted and won the school’s first playoff game in decades before being eliminated from the postseason by eventual state champion Alcoa.
“I think the high point of last year was winning the home playoff game,” head coach Drew Rice recently told The Erwin Record. “We hadn’t hosted a playoff game since 1991 and hadn’t won one since 1985. So to have that sort of historical relevance, and it be at home in front of our fans was really special. Finally getting over the five win mark like we had been at for the previous three years was huge too; it was a special year for a lot of people.”
With the 2019 season upon them, the question now is, can the Blue Devils repeat – or even top – the success of last season? To do that, coaches and players will have to take the season one game at a time, according to Rice.
“It’s such a long season, and it’s such a physical and mental grind for both our guys and our coaches … ,” Rice said. “We have always talked about going 1-0 each and every week, but last year was definitely a product of that mindset. I hope our guys truly learned how to win. We had tasted success in the couple years prior, but it was never sustained success. So my hope is that our guys saw and learned what it takes to be successful throughout the course of an entire season. We had tremendous leadership last year from our seniors, so I hope this year’s seniors can model that same type of mentality and approach.”
With 56 players on the roster, including 31 upperclassmen, Rice has high expectations for the 2019 season.
“We have four goals every year – have a winning season, win the region, host a playoff game and advance in the playoffs,” Rice said. “Last year we accomplished three of those four. In order to do that, we have to go 1-0 each and every week. So ultimately we think we can be competitive for the top of our league, but we have to do a lot of proving between now and the end of the season. Last year’s accomplishments, mean absolutely nothing when we kick off the season.”
With that many upperclassmen on the team, the Blue Devils bring an experienced and athletic lineup to the field.
“I think our greatest strength is our depth,” Rice said. “We have 31 upperclassmen and it has really shown in these scrimmages when we put in our second group of guys and there’s really not much of a drop-off. So hopefully, throughout the course of the season that will prove to be a real weapon for us. I also think our team speed is exceptional for a school our size. In our summer testing in June, we had 24 guys under a 5 second 40-yard-dash.”
Aiding the Blue Devils in their quest for a region title and playoff success will be several familiar faces to UCHS fans, including senior running back Kody Lewis. Lewis carried the ball 194 times for 2,025 yards and 24 touchdowns – all without a single fumble – during the 2018 season. His efforts earned him all-state honors from the Tennessee Football Coaches Association.
“He is a preseason all-state selection this year and will be the feature back,” Rice said. “He has next-level speed and we are excited for him.”
Running the offense will be junior quarterback Brock Thompson, who threw for just over 100 yards a game and 15 touchdowns last season.
“He has been starting since the third game of his freshman year, so we have all the confidence in the world in his ability,” Rice said. “He has really grown and matured as an athlete and a quarterback.”
Junior Robbie O’Dell will be the backup quarterback this season.
“Robbie has really had a great summer,” Rice said. “He is a great athlete who can do a lot of different things for us.”
Senior Diego Diaz will also get a lot of touches this season.
“He has really had a great offseason and he runs extremely hard,” Rice said.
On the outside, wideouts Peyton Whitson, Tanner VanHoy, Evan Huff, Tracy Vanover and Jordan Bridges all bring athleticism to the field.
“They all can make plays for us,” Rice said.
L.J. Mitchell and Isaiah Smith will play H-back this season.
“Their position is absolutely critical to our offense,” Rice said.
The offensive line is anchored by the experienced senior trio of Roby Lemmon, Michael Harrington and Nick Farnor.
“All three of them have started since they were sophomores on the offensive line,” Rice said. “Dakoda Bell and Rodrigo Castellon will play our guard spots and Caleb Swinehart will be a very valuable backup for us.”
In addition to the experience, there are several youngsters who are ready to make a name for themselves on the gridiron this season.
“We have some tremendous young talent like Bryson Peterson, Lucas Slagle, Nehemiah Edwards, Esteban Mendoza and Caleb Pelaez,” Rice said. “All those guys are going to have very bright futures in our program.”
Players to watch on defense include Mitchell and senior Zhante Breedlove. Rice said they will be the defensive anchor at their defensive end positions.
“On the interior defensive line, Rodrigo Castellon, Nick Farnor, Michael Harrington and Ethan Fuller will all play meaningful snaps,” Rice said. “Our linebackers are senior heavy with Roby Lemmon and Lane Garland on the interior. Both have played a lot of football for us, and are very committed to our program. Isaiah Smith is an extremely talented sophomore who will play all three linebacker spots for us; he is going to be a name people hear a lot over the next three years.
“Preston Woodby and Diego Diaz will hold down the outside linebacker spot for us, and provide speed and athleticism for us on the edge. In our secondary, Kody Lewis, Jacob Schreck and Robbie O’Dell will all split time between the two safety spots. At corner Tanner VanHoy and Matthew Sellars will start. Tracy Vanover will provide valuable depth there for us as well.”
In addition to Rice, the 2019 Blue Devil coaching staff includes Malcolm Foreman, Jason Hensley, Brandon Adams, Jordan Cooper, Mark Peterson, Eric Tilson, Trevor Berry and Austin Hensley.
A successful 2019 campaign will depend on how well the Blue Devils do the little things, according to their head coach.
“We have to take care of the football on offense and we have to tackle well defensively,” Rice said. “If we do those two things night in and night out, we can have a tremendous season.”
The Blue Devils will once again play Region 1-AAA with Chuckey-Doak, Claiborne, Johnson County, North Greene and West Greene.
“We think we are going to be in the mix,” Rice said of the race to the region title. “We have to stay healthy, and we have to control what we can control. If we take care of business each and every week, we will have a chance at a championship come November.”
The Blue Devils open the 2019 season at South Greene in non-league play on Friday, Aug. 23. Their first home game will be Friday, Aug. 30, against Hampton. The first region game will be played on the road at North Greene on Sept. 6. Kickoff for each game is set for 7:30 p.m.
“We would just like to encourage everyone to come support these young men,” Rice said. “It’s an exciting time for football in Unicoi County. They have committed to something that is much bigger than themselves, and because of that, I hope the community will come out and support them. There are currently 110 young men in grades 6-12 who are playing football in Unicoi County right now between the high school and the middle school programs. We want to build long term success in Unicoi County.”
Season tickets and parking passes are still on sale in the main office of UCHS for $30 each.